Pipelines that would store CO2 beneath Midwest states make some landowners nervous

May 8, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

A man and woman stand in a field and pose for a picture. A solar panel is behind them.
Lee and Karen Brocklesby stand on their farm in Christian County, Illinois, where they had solar panels installed in 2019. Karen has become a vocal opponent of plans to inject CO2 from ethanol plants underground in Illinois. (Photo by Alisa Brocklesby)

Three companies are proposing pipelines across the Midwest that would carry carbon dioxide captured from ethanol plants to underground sequestration sites. The plan is to inject the CO2 deep into rock formations under Illinois and North Dakota, but some landowners are pushing back.

This story is a part of a Harvest Public Media series on CO2 pipelines. Read our first story here.

A graphic reads "The Carbon Question," with a corn field and industrial plant in the background. A pipe runs underground at the bottom of the graphic.
This story is a part of a Harvest Public Media series on CO2 pipelines. (Graphic by Chandler Johnson, Harvest Public Media)

Karen Brocklesby describes herself as a farm wife and a mother — but over the past several months, she’s also become somewhat of an activist.

Brocklesby lives in Christian County, Illinois. She’s one of many rural landowners there fighting to keep a company called Navigator Ventures LLC from injecting carbon dioxide beneath her farmland.

“This potential for damaging the water for the future – to me, it just is foolishness. Especially in areas that are good farming areas,” Brockelsby said.

Brockelsby has a list of concerns about carbon sequestration. But chief among them is the worry that sequestered carbon could contaminate the area’s water supply.

“It would be a danger to both our agriculture production and, even more importantly, to the drinking water for everybody who lives in this area,” she said.

Brocklesby isn’t alone. Christian County is awash in signs and billboards urging residents to protect the aquifer from pipeline projects.

The Navigator pipeline that Brockelsby and her neighbors oppose would carry CO2 from ethanol plants through five states, including Iowa and Nebraska, to two injection sites in central Illinois. The CO2 would then be pumped 6,000 feet underground into “pore space” — tiny areas in the subsurface that are unoccupied by solid material.

And Navigator’s pipeline isn’t the only project being proposed in the Midwest. Wolf Carbon Solutions also plans to sink CO2 underground in Illinois, while Summit Carbon Solutions proposes capturing CO2 from ethanol plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota and injecting it underground in North Dakota.

Landowners like Brockelsby have been organizing for months to stop companies from acquiring the land rights they need to store carbon.

“I would like to slow them down to the point where they give up on Illinois entirely,” Brockelsby said.

A sign standing in a field reads "Protect Christian County's Aquifer!"
Signs dot the landscape in Christian County, Illinois, opposing a plan to pipe and sequester carbon dioxide underground. Three companies want to capture CO2 from ethanol plants throughout the Midwest and store it underneath Illinois and North Dakota. (Photo by Sarah Nardi, Harvest Public Media)

Why Illinois?

The companies are targeting the state because of a 60,000-square-mile basin known as the Mount Simon Sandstone that geologists like Sallie Greenberg say is ideal for carbon storage.

“In geologic storage you look for something that is a container and something that is a seal,” explained Greenberg, who is a principal research scientist with the Illinois Geological Survey.

The bottom of the Illinois basin is lined with layers of rock that Greenberg compares it to a seven-layer salad. The bottom layer is composed of highly permeable sandstone and eventually capped by an impermeable layer of shale.

It’s the particular configuration of those different types of rocks that make Illinois “highly suitable” for the geologic storage of carbon dioxide, Greenberg said.

This kind of project isn’t new.

The Mount Simon Sandstone is already storing over a million metric tons of CO2 captured from the Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant as part of a test project led by Greenburg called the Illinois Basin-Decatur Project.

The project was designed to test carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, at a commercial scale. And it’s an example that Navigator CO2 points to as evidence that carbon sequestration works.

“Demonstration projects like ADM have been able to prove points, over time, that this absolutely can be done successfully and safely,” said Navigator spokesperson Elizabeth Burns-Thompson.

But whereas ADM is storing around a million metric tons of carbon, Burns-Thompson has said that Navigator will capture 15-million metric tons each year.

And that makes landowners like Brockelsby nervous.

“I mean what they’re doing at ADM I think is, like, 3% of what they’re proposing to do here in my neighborhood,” she said.


‘We’ve been doing this for 100 years’

Large scale sequestration projects have been done before. The problem, said John Harju of the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, is that there haven’t been that many.

“There's not a lot of on the ground projects. And, you know, where do you go look at a few projects to build confidence that this does work?” Harju said.

Harju points to the Dakota Gasification Company. For over 20 years the company has been sequestering millions of tons of CO2 in a geologic formation called the Williston Basin that underlies parts of the Dakotas, Montana and southern Saskatechewan.

That basin has the same kind of seven-layer salad structure as the Mount Simon Sandstone, which is why Summit Carbon Solutions is proposing a sequestration site just north of Bismarck, North Dakota.

But landowners there have questions, and many are concerned about a North Dakota law that could compel them to sell pore space beneath their land to pipeline companies.

State Sen. Jeff Magrum said landowners should have the right not to sell, especially as they grapple with worries over safety.

“There are concerns we have because this is all so new,” said Magrum, a Republican who represents part of rural Bismarck.

He introduced a bill in January that would require companies to get at least 85% of landowners to sign on voluntarily before others could be forced to do so through eminent domain.

The measure failed, leaving the law at the current rate of 60%.

While the proliferation of companies hoping to capture and store carbon underground may be new, Greenberg explained that the science behind sequestration isn’t.

“Storage of carbon dioxide is a relatively new application. It is not an untested set of technological advancements because we’ve been doing this (for) a hundred years.”

Greenberg said the technology is an amalgamation of existing methods based on 100 years of oil and gas production. The technology has long been used in the process of enhanced oil recovery — the process of injecting carbon dioxide recovered from oil and gas production into depleted reservoirs to extract more hydrocarbons.

But when it comes to public perspective, injecting carbon dioxide into an oil field is not the same thing as pumping it underneath Karen Brockelsby’s farmland. And that’s a bind Harju understands.

“The projects are not proliferous yet,” he said. “But those that have been conducted are reassuring.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.