CO2 pipeline project proceeding

Environmental groups and some landowners trying to block it, citing safety concerns

The clock is ticking on a Texas-based company's plans to build a multi-state pipeline carrying pressurized, liquified carbon dioxide across 250 miles of central Illinois – including Sangamon County south of Springfield – to sequestration fields in Christian County.

What is expected to be at least an 11-month process for the Heartland Greenway pipeline began with Navigator CO Ventures' July 25 filing of a 45-page application for approval with the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The company pledges the $3 billion, 1,300-mile pipeline – crossing all or parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota – would support the ethanol and fertilizer industries in meeting voluntary and mandatory carbon limits while avoiding the release of climate change-causing CO into the atmosphere.

Most of the pipeline's users would be in other states but would include a fertilizer production plant near the Henry County community of Galva, Illinois.

Though met with significant skepticism from environmental groups, company officials also say the pipeline would operate safely, despite the 2020 accidental rupture of Denbury Inc.'s CO pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi, that hospitalized almost 50 people and forced 300 residents to evacuate.

"We intend to be, and will be, good operators," Navigator spokeswoman Elizabeth Burns-Thompson said. "There is a way to do this safely."

But critics of the proposal say it would pose risks to the health and safety of residents along the pipeline, permanently damage valuable croplands, create unfunded burdens for county and municipal governments, stress rural emergency medical service systems, and provide questionable benefits to the environment.

"We're proceeding with something that's never been done before at this scale in the United States," said Pam Richart, co-director of the Eco-Justice Coalition, based in Champaign. "In Sangamon County alone, it's going to go within a mile of 400 homes."

Richart is a leader in the Coalition to Stop CO Pipelines, a coalition of Illinois environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, as well as landowners and residents.

"The coalition believes the mad rush to build these pipelines as part of the technology called carbon capture is dangerous and a false solution that will keep Illinois reliant on fossil fuels," the coalition said in a news release.

Coalition members say carbon sequestration technology isn't fully developed and that it diverts attention away from more viable CO reduction methods, such as wind and solar power.

There's not enough regulation of the pipeline industry at the state or federal level, they say. And they point to recent efforts by the administration of President Joe Biden to potentially increase oversight of a pipeline industry that largely is funded through federal tax incentives received by CO producers that use pipelines.

They are calling on the public to publicly comment on the company's application on the ICC website – accessible at https://bit.ly/CO2pipelineIL – and get in touch with the Coalition to Stop CO Capital Pipelines at https://noillinoisco2pipelines.org.

Opponents also are asking local governmental officials to issue moratoriums on zoning permits for CO pipelines or sequestration and consider becoming a formal part of the ICC approval process as an "intervenor."

The Christian County Board on May 17 voted 13-2, with 15 members voting "present," to impose a six-month moratorium on issuance of special-use permits for underground carbon sequestration facilities.

But County Board Chairman Matt Wells, who isn't convinced the Navigator project will be good for farmers or the county as a whole, said there are questions as to whether such a moratorium can be legally enforced.

And Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter said in a statement, "Up to this point, the State's Attorney's Office has indicated that the County Board has no authority to stop the project. We have asked the State's Attorney's Office to take a deeper look and are awaiting their findings."

Illinois is the first state where Navigator has begun the approval process with state regulators for the longest CO pipeline of its kind in the United States. The pipeline would cross parts of Sangamon County, as well as a dozen other counties.

The company soon will file applications in other states, Burns-Thompson said. A decision from the ICC could come in 2023, and construction could begin in 2024, she said.

The company, financially backed by BlackRock Inc., a global investment firm, also has filed an application with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has regulatory authority over CO sequestration.

Navigator says in its application that it intends to initially capture, transport and store up to 10 million metric tons of CO annually, with the amount eventually rising to 15 metric tons per year.

The application says the permanent sequestration site would be 5,800 feet underground and beneath parts of Christian County.

But because the number of pipeline users along the multi-state route has grown from 21 to almost 40, Navigator is considering sequestering the CO in counties "throughout central Illinois," including Sangamon, Burns-Thompson said.

She denied that the company is expanding its search for potential sequestration sites beyond Christian County because of opposition from landowners in the 30,000-acre designated area north of Taylorville.

Richart said 80% of Christian County landowners in that area have indicated they oppose the project and don't want to sell "pore" rights to Navigator.

A 2011 law passed by the Illinois General Assembly to spur the now-defunct FutureGen project in Morgan County would give Navigator a path to seize property for the pipeline in central Illinois through eminent domain if the ICC grants a pipeline permit.

That's because the law says "pipeline transportation of carbon dioxide for sequestration, enhanced oil recovery and other purposes is declared to be a public use and service, and a benefit to the welfare of Illinois and the people of Illinois."

Burns-Thompson said eminent domain would be used only as a last resort.

A bill pending in the General Assembly and sponsored by state Rep. Thomas Bennett, R-Gibson City, would essentially grant eminent domain for carbon sequestration if a majority of landowners at a site agreed to grant easements and leases for pore rights.

Kathleen Campbell, a retired research scientist who lives with her husband in Glenarm, an unincorporated village in Sangamon County, said her backyard would be less than 100 yards from the proposed pipeline. More than 50 other houses in her subdivision are nearby.

Many of them, like her, display signs in their yards opposing the pipeline.

Campbell, 70, said a rupture in the steel pipeline – 20 or more inches in diameter and five feet underground – would release a CO plume that would hang near the ground and could suffocate residents within minutes. Gasoline-powered vehicles wouldn't be able to operate in the plume, she said.

"It may not be survivable ... if they're within one mile of the pipeline," she said. "It's far more dangerous than a natural gas pipeline. You just can't have it this close to people."

Knox County farmer John Feltham, 65, a retired U.S. Marine and lawyer, said he is worried that the pipeline, which would cross parts of farmland in his family for generations, would cause irreparable damage to the land. He said Navigator's pledges to compensate landowners for crop losses for a few years are inadequate.

"Once someone digs a trench across farm ground, that ground is more susceptible to erosion in the future, no matter what is done," he said.

Feltham is looking to organize other landowners to wage a lawsuit that says the 2011 state law granting eminent domain powers violates the Illinois Constitution.

"I'm hoping enough landowners will be offended by this issue and be willing to fight it," he said.