Residents opposed to a multi-state carbon pipeline gathered in Linn County, Iowa, to paint signs protesting the project in December 2021.
Residents opposed to a multi-state carbon pipeline gathered in Linn County, Iowa, to paint signs protesting the project in December 2021. Credit: © Joseph Cress / Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

After filing a new application for a multi-state carbon dioxide pipeline, Navigator CO2 Ventures says its two proposed sequestration sites in Illinois will not be the last word on the project.

“We want to build out something that’s dynamic in nature, which means a variety of on-ramps [and] a variety of off-ramps,” said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, Navigator’s vice president of government and public affairs. 

“The geology in Central Illinois is ripe for sequestration, and the ability to do this safely in a number of counties has great potential. We want to go out and map landowner interest and appetite with where the geology makes sense.”

Navigator has refiled its petition with the Illinois Commerce Commission for an expanded carbon dioxide pipeline route, adding a 42-mile spur to a proposed carbon sequestration site that was not listed in an earlier proposal. That petition was withdrawn in January at the urging of regulatory staff, who said it lacked sufficient detail, and in the face of intense local opposition.

The new application, filed Feb. 24, says the Heartland Greenway pipeline will still connect to a “permanent underground sequestration site” in Christian County plus a “termination and delivery point in Montgomery County for sequestration areas being developed” by the company. 

The 42-mile lateral pipeline added to the latest application would connect Sangamon and Montgomery counties to the main pipeline, which would collect carbon dioxide from ethanol and fertilizer plants across five states. 

Navigator’s Illinois application notes that carbon dioxide carried in the pipeline may be stored in “terminal facilities” that would make it available for industrial users as “an efficient source of carbon dioxide.” The application says these hubs would be located in Iowa, not Illinois, but Burns-Thompson said that carbon dioxide could also be sold to industrial users in Illinois in the future. 

“We have always looked at this as a dynamic piece of infrastructure that continues to grow and evolve based on the market demands of our shippers,” she said. “There are manufacturers that can take carbon dioxide and break that molecule down into something that’s a valuable product.”

As of December, the company had only secured 6% of the easements it would need from Illinois landowners, according to filings with the Illinois Commerce Commission. And Christian County, where it proposed to sequester carbon, passed a moratorium on carbon dioxide pipelines. 

Navigator has offered lucrative fees to both counties targeted for sequestration in exchange for local officials agreeing to facilitate pipeline development, and the company plans to offer such payments to all counties on the pipeline’s path, Burns-Thompson said.

She said Navigator was surprised to learn that, unlike in other states, pipeline operators don’t pay property taxes in Illinois, so Navigator is offering payments of similar amounts in an effort to be “a good steward.” 

Critics see it differently, and they note that the offers were made despite Christian and McDonough counties passing moratoria on such pipelines. Residents have pushed for Montgomery County to pass a moratorium or use zoning to block a pipeline or sequestration site. Two Montgomery County townships have passed resolutions opposing the pipeline.  

“They’ve been hitting counties along the route and trying to buy them out,” said Pam Richart, leader of an Illinois coalition against carbon dioxide pipelines, during a Feb. 27 webinar. “They’ve been offering some pretty hefty dollars. The counties are holding fast, holding firm and saying no.”

Opposition and eminent domain

Burns-Thompson said the company is not discouraged by the moratoria — which she described as “short-term pauses” — or the slow rate of acquiring easements. 

“It’s important to spend time with the local governments and walk them through the robust oversight that exists,” she said. “This is something that’s largely relationship-focused; people want to get to know who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it long before we can get into the nitty-gritty of an easement contract.” 

Along with at least five counties that have formally stated their opposition, the Illinois Farm Bureau has signed on to a motion to dismiss Navigator’s permit application. Opponents worry about the seizure of land through eminent domain, safety risks, and impacts on land value and farming. 

Navigator counters that the pipeline would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help the regional ethanol industry and create jobs. 

On Feb. 15 and 16, the company held virtual town halls for the public touting benefits of the pipeline. The application says the company will be sending out letters about the new permit proposal to landowners within a half-mile corridor of the proposed route and will publish notices in a newspaper in each county.

The application says the company will use eminent domain to seize land “in the event it is necessary to avoid unreasonable delay or economic hardship” for the project.

Burns-Thompson said the company will use eminent domain only as a “tool of last resort.”

“Eminent domain does not save us time, it does not save us money and it does not make us any friends,” she said. “If you look at any business, be it a pipeline company or corner coffeeshop, they are looking to maximize their time and financial resources and they want folks they do business with to like them in return. We are incentivized to do this in a voluntary process.” 

State legislation proposed 

Opponents have worked with state legislators to introduce bills this month limiting carbon dioxide pipelines, which if passed could apply to Navigator’s proposal. 

One, SB 1916/HB 3803, would create a moratorium on carbon dioxide pipeline construction for two years or until the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has adopted revised federal safety standards for the transportation of carbon dioxide. The safety administration announced new rulemaking around carbon dioxide pipelines in the wake of a 2020 pipeline rupture in Sartartia, Mississippi, that sickened many. 

The other Illinois state bill, HB 3119/ SB2421, includes multiple curbs and safeguards including a ban on the use of eminent domain and the creation of a fund — paid into by companies — for problems with pipelines and sequestration and for training first responders.

That bill also holds pipeline companies fully liable for any carbon dioxide leaks from pipelines or sequestration sites, and it requires pipelines to be approved by 100% of surface landowners along the route. It also requires a life-cycle carbon emissions analysis of proposed pipelines, and requires that the Illinois Commerce Commission consider alternative project proposals that would result in similar greenhouse gas emissions reductions to what the pipeline companies promise.

Both bills were introduced in the state House on Feb. 16 and 17 and then referred to the rules committee.

During the Feb. 27 webinar, Richart said the more comprehensive bill would create “lots and lots and lots of public participation, that is so important when you’re talking about such risky endeavors.”

“We need this legislation and we need it like yesterday,” Richart said.

Interstate organizing

Navigator’s Heartland Greenway pipeline crosses Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota, and is among a number of controversial carbon dioxide pipelines proposed by various companies in those states.

During regular webinars and meetings, an interstate coalition of pipeline opponents shares their progress raising awareness, encouraging landowners not to sign easements, drafting legal action, and pushing counties and states to pass legislation and moratoria.

During the Feb. 27 webinar where Richart discussed Navigator’s revised application, organizers in Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota discussed other pipeline proposals and their efforts to block them.  

Iowa Sierra Club conservation program director Jess Mazour said Navigator and other companies proposing three different pipelines through the state are “using fear-mongering tactics, saying the ethanol industry is going to die.”

She said 44 of 56 affected counties have intervened in proceedings or logged opposition, mostly over pipeline companies using eminent domain.

“Landowners are remaining united, holding out and not signing easements,” Mazour said. “I have every reason to think we’ll stop all three of these pipelines.” 

Shelli Meyer, whose family has owned a Nebraska farm for a century, said landowners feel they are facing “harassment” as agents contact them repeatedly asking them to sign easements. “We’re telling people, ‘Don’t sign, don’t sign, don’t sign,’” she said.

‘Landowners don’t really have a chance to speak up’ 

More than a decade ago, a pipeline was proposed in Illinois to take carbon dioxide from coal gasification plants in the state to Texas oilfields for enhanced oil recovery, an option Burns-Thompson said is not part of Navigator’s plans. Critics saw it as an ill-fated way to bolster the state’s coal industry.

In 2011, Illinois passed a law regulating carbon dioxide pipelines, to facilitate proposed “clean coal plants” that never came to fruition. Now advocates lament that the law enshrines the idea that carbon dioxide pipelines benefit the public and increase energy security, and makes it hard for residents to challenge this premise.

Illinois leaders argue that the process created by the state law, including an 11-month review period before the Illinois Commerce Commission, allows for less public input than in other states.

The state law “gives conditional approval to the developer, and automatically grants limited authority for eminent domain,” Richart said in the webinar. “Landowners don’t really have a chance to speak up.”

Richart urged local landowners and activists to organize around the clock, and not let a weekend go by without working against pipelines. Illinois pipeline opponents formed a nonprofit organization, Citizens Against Heartland Greenway Pipeline, that charges members $500 a year and has 200 members, allowing them to hire an attorney and participate in the costly intervention process before the Illinois Commerce Commission. An affiliated coalition also provides information and organizing opportunities to landowners, elected officials, business leaders and others at no charge.   

The citizens group had formally intervened before the commerce commission on Navigator’s previous proposal, but since that proposal was withdrawn and resubmitted, they must go through the process again.

“Navigator Heartland Greenway may be persistent in its attempts to endanger Illinoisans through the construction of this pipeline, but they are up against farmers like me who will not let a greedy corporation take our land through eminent domain without a fight,” said Steve Hess, a McDonough County farmer and board member of Citizens Against Heartland Greenway Pipeline, in a statement issued by the group. 

“We will not allow Navigator to permanently damage land, adversely impact farmers’ livelihoods and Illinois agriculture, and endanger our lives. [The citizens group] will again file a petition to intervene with the [Illinois Commerce Commission] and continue to fight this project.”

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.