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Midwest Farmers, Environmentalists Celebrate CO2 Pipeline End

On Oct. 20, Navigator CO2 announced that it would abandon its plan to send a $3.4 billion carbon dioxide pipeline through five states. But the company is still pursuing carbon storage projects in central Illinois.

When Steve Hess learned about a plan to send a $3.4 billion carbon dioxide pipeline through five states —and Hess’ own corn and soybean fields in western Illinois — the 68-year-old farmer knew two things:

He knew he would fight the project, which he viewed as a threat to his family’s health, safety and property rights.

And he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Initially, Hess, who farms land that has been in his wife’s family since 1869, thought the odds of beating out Navigator CO2, an Omaha-based company backed by the international investment giant BlackRock, were “slim to none,” an assessment borne out when a local lawyer warned, “There’s no way you can fight this.”

But less than two years later, Hess and his allies — a coalition of farmers and environmentalists across the Midwest — are celebrating an Oct. 20 announcement that Navigator has abandoned its pipeline plan.

“We’re going to have a party,” said Hess, speaking by phone from his tractor during a 12-hour day in the cornfields. “There are so many people on that team that worked so hard, and we have thrown so many stones at Goliath. It’s really gratifying that our work paid off.”

Proposed as a way to combat climate change by capturing planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions at Midwestern ethanol plants, transporting the CO2 via pipeline, and burying it deep underground in central Illinois, the Navigator project was positioned to receive as much as $1.3 billion a year in federal tax credits under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

The project would have stored up to 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of taking 3.2 million cars off the road.

But Navigator faced major obstacles, including strikingly strong opposition from Illinois farmers, who in some cases rejected offers of over $100,000 to allow the pipeline to run through their land.

And in the end, the resistance from state regulators with the power to block the pipeline made it hard for the company to see a way forward.

Navigator CO2′s vice president for government and public affairs, Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, said the company considered not only its own experience with state regulators, but also the experiences of two other CO2 pipeline companies proposing major projects in the Midwest, Wolf Carbon Solutions and Summit Carbon Solutions.

“(Our investors were) looking at it like any business would — whether large-scale infrastructure development or remodeling your home,” Burns-Thompson said. “At a certain point you have to figure out the cost-benefit of how much money you can put into something, and can you reap that back out?”

Navigator’s decision came six weeks after South Dakota regulators dealt the pipeline a crushing blow, unanimously denying approval for the project.

“That was the end of the end,” said Brian Jorde, the lawyer representing landowners in four states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa ― in the fight against the Navigator and Summit pipelines.

“The holy grail for the opposition (to these projects) is getting to the financial side where the mega-investors start to feel a little shaky about it,” Jorde said. “That’s when things start to unravel.”

Burns-Thompson said that dozens of Navigator CO2 employees had been laid off, although some would move to jobs at Navigator’s sister company in Dallas.

Navigator CO2 had about 50 employees before the layoffs.

The company is still pursuing its $350 million carbon storage project in central Illinois, where it has acquired rights to store carbon deep below tens of thousands of acres of land. Navigator’s options include selling the rights to the underground storage space or partnering with another pipeline, Burns-Thompson said.

She said there are no plans to sell easements — the agreements some landowners signed allowing the pipeline to run through their property — and there are no plans for another Navigator CO2 pipeline at this time.

Safety Concerns on Day One

At first glance, the Navigator pipeline had something for everyone.

For environmentalists, there was the chance to capture tens of millions of metric tons of planet-warming CO2 and bury it deep underground at what would have been — if built immediately — the largest storage facility of its kind in the world.

For farmers, who grow the corn that’s used to make the ethanol — a component of today’s car fuels — the pipeline offered a way to help ensure continuing demand in an era when states are taking steps to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

And for the region as a whole, there was the promise of jobs. The project would employ an average of 3,900 construction workers a year for a period of four years, according to a consultant’s 2022 economic impact study.

But even in the early days, some had doubts.

In the rare cases when carbon dioxide pipelines leak or rupture, the gas that is released can cause breathing problems, confusion, loss of consciousness and even death. When a pipeline ruptured near the tiny village of Satartia, Mississippi, in 2020, no one died, but 45 people sought medical care at local hospitals.

Citing that incident, critics say it’s important to keep CO2 pipelines away from homes, schools and hospitals.

But that would be hard to do in rural Illinois, where homes are often spaced about a quarter-mile from each other, according to Pam Richart, co-director of the Champaign-based environmental group Eco-Justice Collaborative and lead organizer of the Coalition to Stop CO2 Pipelines.

“I don’t know how they would have achieved it. I’ve questioned that from day one,” said Richart.

As the fight went on, opponents in Illinois called for a moratorium on all new carbon pipelines, including two other major projects in the Midwest: the Wolf pipeline in Illinois and Iowa, and the Summit pipeline in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota.

Opponents argued that construction should be blocked while federal regulators hammer out new CO2 pipeline safety rules in the wake of the Mississippi pipeline rupture. The new rules are expected in 2024.

“Did (Navigator) finally realize that they had a problem with respect to safety?” Richart mused, as she contemplated the company’s decision to cancel the pipeline. “I don’t know, but it was certainly the mantra all across the Midwest.”

Navigator has said that the proposed pipeline could be built safely, and the company pointed to thousands of miles of CO2 pipeline already in use in the United States, mostly by the oil industry.

Farmers rallied around the safety issue, as well as concerns that pipelines, which run underground, can damage soil and reduce crop yields.

A 2022 review of academic studies in the journal Agrosystems, Geosciences & Environment found that in 15 out of 25 studies, crop yields declined after pipeline installation — by 6 percent to 46 percent — and a 2022 study in the Soil Science Society of America Journal found that even four or five years after natural gas pipeline installation, corn yields remained 20 percent to 24 percent lower than in comparable fields with no pipelines.

Farmers also worried about damage to expensive underground drainage systems.

And then there were the intangibles: strong ties to land that had been in families for generations and deep resistance to the threat of eminent domain, in which private land can be seized for the public good.

Hess, a leader of the Navigator opposition group Citizens Against Heartland Greenway Pipeline, lives on a farm near Bushnell that his wife Phyllis’ family homesteaded in 1869. He farms alongside his only son, who he says is “G6,” or a sixth-generation farmer.

Hess also has 12 living grandchildren, including at least one who has shown signs of interest in farming.

“I personally don’t want to sell a strip of my farm — across the middle of it — to someone else forever,” Hess said. “And once I do that I can’t build on that. I can’t plant a tree on that. I can’t do any kind of improvement on that land without their permission. That’s not why I own property — to have someone else take control of it.”

Hess doesn’t want future generations to have to deal with such limits, he said, and he doesn’t want them to face the risk of carbon dioxide exposure.

“I’m in this fight for my grandchildren,” he said.

‘How Do You Fight a Giant?’

Navigator was effectively fighting a multifront war, with each of the five states involved representing a different front, according to Citizens Against Heartland Greenway Pipeline’s president, John Feltham, a farmer and retired U.S. Marine Corps judge advocate.

Navigator lost in South Dakota, he noted, and in Iowa it was engaged in a prolonged legal battle over whether its surveyors had the right to enter private property without the owners’ permission.

Obstacles also loomed in Illinois, home to the project’s only carbon storage site.

In June, a staff member at the state’s regulatory agency, the Illinois Commerce Commission, recommended against approving the pipeline.

The staff member, senior gas engineer Mark Maple, voiced concerns about outdated federal safety regulations and the status of the project’s carbon storage site, which had not yet received the necessary permits. He also noted the steely resistance from landowners.

Navigator had obtained only 13 percent of the agreements with landowners the company needed, “an extraordinarily low success rate given the time that has elapsed,” Maple testified.

“In my opinion, this calls into question (Navigator’s) negotiation processes and is a strong indication of the unpopularity of the project and the safety concerns held by the Illinois residents living along the route,” Maple said.

Maple recommended that Illinois deny approval, and wait until federal CO2 pipeline safety rules could be updated.

In late September, Navigator temporarily paused its application to build in Iowa, prompting speculation that the company wanted to focus on Illinois, but then on Oct. 10, Navigator withdrew its application in Illinois.

For Jorde, who represented hundreds of landowners in each of four states, a turning point in the battle against Navigator came during this summer’s hearings before state regulators in South Dakota.

“Based on my cross-examination, how the evidence was coming in, and just taking a commonsense approach to what was being said, I had the belief that they could be beaten,” Jorde said. “I had the belief that we could actually win, (while) going into that proceeding it was hard not to think, why are we even doing this?”

There was no big dramatic courtroom moment when Navigator’s case crumbled, Jorde said, although he believes he did score points on issues such as the ability of the ethanol industry to move forward successfully without the project.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Jorde said. “How do you fight a giant? You don’t have a bazooka so it’s here and there and over time and (with) persistence.”

In keeping with that assessment, the final denial by South Dakota regulators cited an array of lingering concerns, including questions about the health, safety and welfare of people living near the pipeline; the economic effects on local residents; and the potential impact on beneficial land development.

Midwest Remains a Battleground

Burns-Thompson said she looks back fondly on her 2 ½ years working to make the Navigator pipeline a reality.

“I still fundamentally believe in what we were doing,” she said, and she hopes a similar pipeline will be built in Illinois in the next few years.

“This pipeline development is good for the Midwest. It’s good for the industries that are economically important. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for progress. It’s good for local economies,” she said.

The Navigator project would have created thousands of construction jobs, and up to $13.5 million a year in payments similar to property tax in Illinois, according to a consultant’s 2022 economic development study.

But experts cautioned that the study was paid for by the company that wanted the project and relied on the company’s own financial data.

“Whenever I see something like this, I would instantly think to myself, ‘What if (the benefit) is half the size? What if it’s a third the size?’” said Joshua Drucker, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If that’s still really big, maybe that’s fine, but I wouldn’t take the numbers anywhere near their face value.”

In the aftermath of Navigator’s retreat, Richart said opponents will continue to pursue a state moratorium on CO2 pipeline and storage projects, as well as state legislation that addresses key issues such as emergency response, emergency preparedness and setbacks, or limits on how close a pipeline can be to homes and schools.

Opponents also want to assure that CO2 storage sites won’t become financial burdens to taxpayers, and that they won’t be turned over to the state when projects are complete.

“We want to make sure there’s money (provided) by the operator and developer to take care of a (storage) site and monitor and deal with any emergencies that might arise for 100 years,” Richart said.

On the federal level, regulators are updating safety rules that came under scrutiny after the 2020 pipeline rupture in Mississippi. Among the concerns: A relatively simple form of computer modeling that is allowed under current rules failed to predict that a cloud of hazardous carbon dioxide would reach the nearby village of Satartia.

Pipeline safety advocates point to other gaps in federal regulation, including the lack of specific limits on the potentially corrosive impurities allowed in the CO2 pipelines, and the lack of any requirement than an odorant be added to carbon dioxide to alert the public to potential danger in the case of an accident.

There’s still impassioned debate over whether carbon capture for ethanol makes sense from a climate perspective, given that electric vehicles have the long-term potential to be very low emissions.

But for now, at least, ethanol use is widespread, and the economic incentives to lower its carbon footprint remain very strong.

Trapping carbon dioxide during ethanol production is relatively easy and inexpensive, and the companies that do so can take advantage of billions of dollars in federal tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Given that backdrop, Richart described her allies’ mood in the wake of Navigator’s defeat as “cautiously celebratory.”

Hess, while relieved, said he is already looking to the future.

“I wish I knew what the next move was going to be so we could start preparing for that,” he said. “We have won this battle, but we have not won the war, and the war is far from over.”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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