Grassy Illinois farmland.
A Texas company's proposed pipeline network would carry carbon dioxide to central Illinois, where it would be stored in “pore space” under thousands of acres of farmland and other rural property. Credit: Jonathan Babb / Creative Commons

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A coalition of downstate Illinois environmental groups is warning rural landowners about potential safety and financial hazards from a planned carbon sequestration project in the region.

Illinois’ sandstone geology is considered ideal for below-ground carbon sequestration. Several such projects in the state have been proposed and researched in the past without coming to completion, as carbon capture and sequestration at scale remains an expensive and largely untested technology. 

That could change with a Texas company’s proposed Heartland Greenway project, a 1,300-mile pipeline network that would carry carbon dioxide from ethanol plants in five Midwest states to central Illinois, where up to 15 million metric tons would be stored in “pore space” located under thousands of acres of farmland and other rural property.

The risk of damage from the project’s construction and operation has already raised significant opposition in Iowa. At a March 7 webinar, experts and local advocates in downstate Illinois urged landowners there to prepare a similar defense ahead of potential easement or eminent domain disputes.

Illinois is poised to become a “superhighway for CO2 pipelines gathering [carbon dioxide] all over the Midwest,” energy attorney Paul Blackburn said at the webinar, presented by the Coalition to Stop CO2 Pipelines. “Some folks believe these pipelines will stop climate change, but there are arguments about whether that is actually true.” 

Groundwork laid in Illinois 

So far Illinois’ only carbon dioxide pipeline is a short one connecting an ADM ethanol plant with a sequestration site mostly on the company’s land in Decatur, experts say. 

In 2011 Illinois passed a law related to carbon dioxide shipping and sequestration, to facilitate the proposed FutureGen project, a multibillion-dollar proposal to store carbon dioxide underground at the site of a Meredosia, Illinois, coal plant. The federal government pulled funding and the project died in 2015

Under that law, the Illinois Commerce Commission must approve the route and overall plan for carbon dioxide pipelines. Pipelines must obtain federal permits from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They must also obtain state permits promising to remedy damage to agriculture, including disruption of drainage tiles or soil. 

Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures proposes to sequester carbon dioxide across 30,000 acres about a mile underground in the Mount Simon Sandstone. Navigator proposes to pay Illinois farmers for reduced crop yield for three years after pipeline construction, paying 100%, 80% and 60% each year. 

Once pipelines obtain state commission approval, former Illinois Commerce Commission administrative law judge John Albers explained at the webinar, companies have the right to invoke eminent domain if needed to avoid unnecessary delay or financial hardship. Residents and advocates at the meeting worried these terms are too broad and could allow widespread use of eminent domain. They also expressed doubts as to whether farmland would be adequately protected. 

In 2020 a bill was introduced in Illinois, but failed to advance, that would have allowed companies to move forward with sequestration if 50% of affected pore space owners approved. 

Safety risks 

Blackburn, who has represented the Sierra Club and residents in opposition to the Keystone XL and other pipelines, outlined what he described as significant safety concerns from carbon dioxide transport and storage. 

He said that since carbon dioxide is transported in pipelines in a “supercritical” state between a gas and liquid, it behaves differently than either liquid oil or natural gas in case of a spill. It decompresses as it goes from a gas to liquid state, a process that can damage pipelines and even lead to the formation of dry ice, which can cause serious damage and risk. Meanwhile, a pressure increase as it goes from liquid to gas can “unzip” pipelines, ripping them open, Blackburn said. And since supercritical carbon dioxide can dissolve hydrocarbons, it could corrode the sealings and coatings on pipes.

“Oil is a liquid and it stays liquid, and natural gas is gas; it stays gas,” said Blackburn. “But supercritical carbon dioxide is a funny hybrid and if it’s not controlled carefully it can switch back and forth between gas and liquid, and that can be very dangerous.”

Oil and gas versus carbon dioxide pipelines “are different creatures,” added Albers, who explained state law and processes during the webinar. He worried that the state Commerce Commission’s experts don’t have adequate experience with carbon dioxide pipelines.

“If staff is not going to have the expertise to evaluate these pipeline projects, I sure recommend you have it,” he said, suggesting citizen groups hire engineers, public health experts and first responders to weigh in on commission proceedings. “It’s your right as citizens, and you’ll definitely be affected by this if it’s on your property or near your property.” 

Since the Commerce Commission has not yet approved the project, the company behind the pipeline is not yet allowed to approach landowners seeking access to their land and subsurface. Speakers at the webinar said they’d heard rumors about company representatives approaching locals and advised residents to report any such contacts to state authorities. 

“We are in the initial phases of this work and we’ve been at it for less than two months,” said Pam Richart, co-founder of the Eco-Justice Collaborative, which advocates for a just clean energy transition in the state. The coalition also plans to organize landowners, elected officials, emergency responders and other stakeholders “to do what we can to form the groups so we can be prepared to intervene” before the commission. 

Learning from Iowa and Indiana 

In Indiana, the state legislature on March 2 approved HB 1209, which creates a process for companies to get landowner approval and compensate landowners for storing carbon dioxide in the pore space below-ground. The bill — pushed by BP — mandates compensating landowners for pore space but also allows them to operate below one’s land if at least 70% of affected landowners approve it. 

Another Indiana bill, pushed for years by the company Wabash Valley Resources, failed in the legislature, to the relief of farmers and citizen watchdogs. It did not compensate landowners and stipulated that the company could only be held liable if concrete damage was proven. 

The Indiana Farm Bureau opposed Wabash Valley Resources’ bill since it put the onus on farmers to prove any damage, and did little to compensate them for use of their subsurface property, said Jeff Cummins, associate director for policy engagement for the bureau. The farm bureau was neutral on the bill that did pass. 

“If the company is going to sequester carbon dioxide in the pore space below ground, the farmer and landowner should have the right to monetize pore space, because the company sure will,” Cummins said. “We’re certainly talking with our members a lot about surface carbon sequestration opportunities out there,” like incentives for no-till farming. “These contracts [for subsurface sequestration] should operate somewhat similarly.” 

During the Illinois webinar, rural Iowa blogger and landowner Jessica Wiskus described her and her neighbors’ outrage at the proposed use of eminent domain for the Navigator pipeline, which would pass about a mile from her land. 

Wiskus said the pipeline would go within a few hundred feet of “where my ancestors are buried,” and also put “ballfields, historic buildings, Native American mounds, even schools” at risk. 

She noted widespread reports that the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline has harmed soils as it was constructed in Iowa, and worried the carbon pipeline would do the same.

“The soil we have here is irreplaceable — Mother Nature took thousands of years to make it, but the pipeline would undo all of that,” she said. 

Richart cited Iowa residents’ organizing around the pipeline in urging Illinois residents to learn more about the proposal and get involved in Commerce Commission proceedings. The Eco-Justice Collaborative, Sierra Club and other partners are urging Illinois residents to visit a website they created opposing carbon dioxide pipelines, and refuse to allow pipelines under their land. 

“Don’t sign that volunteer easement,” Richart said during the webinar. “There will be time for you to sign when you decide what’s right for you, but we’re not there yet. … We’re not alone here in Illinois, there’s been a lot of work going on [in other states] before we even noticed this.”

Kari Lydersen

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.