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Questions remain for Peoria City Council as BioUrja weighs participation in carbon capture pipeline project

Tim Shelley / WCBU

Peoria city officials have met with BioUrja to discuss the company's carbon capture plans for its South Peoria ethanol plant, but concerns and questions remain around the horseshoe.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali confirmed she, City Manager Patrick Urich, First District council member Denise Jackson, and at-large council member Zach Oyler recently had a private meeting with officials from the Texas-based company at City Hall.

"It was good to hear from them directly that they had not made a decision in terms of a pipeline or how they're going to capture the carbon. But they do plan to capture carbon in some way. I think there's three or four different options for doing so. A pipeline is one of those," said Ali.

Other options could include transporting captured carbon dioxide in tanker trucks or via railcar.

City corporation counsel Patrick Hayes gave the council a presentation about carbon capture pipelines at Tuesday night's meeting.

Wolf Carbon Solutions is expected to soon file an application with the Illinois Commerce Commission to construct a pipeline transporting liquefied carbon dioxide to a permanent sequestration site near Decatur. The company is in talks with BioUrja about possible participation in the project.

The plant is currently releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat and contributing to climate change. The basic principle behind carbon sequestration is that it diverts that carbon dioxide to a layer of sandstone deep underground where it can't escape.

Both the federal and state governments have endorsed carbon capture as one part of the solution for stopping the worst impacts of climate change in the decades ahead. Congress beefed up carbon capture tax incentives last year in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Hayes said the main pipeline route isn't expected to pass through the city of Peoria, but if a service line is built to serve the BioUrja plant, it would likely run near the railroad tracks along the Illinois River where BioUrja already owns a lot of land.

Legally, Wolf Carbon Solutions can't begin talking to landowners until its application is filed with the ICC. That's expected to happen in the next month, according to Nick Noppinger, Wolf Carbon Solutions senior vice president of corporate development.

The Heart of Illinois Sierra Club and Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance are among the environmental advocacy groups raising red flags. Those organizations often raise the example of a pipeline rupture in Sartaria, Miss. in 2020 that forced the evacuation of 200 people and more than 40 hospitalizations. Federal regulators are revising pipeline rules in the wake of that incident.

Joyce Blumenshine of the Heart of Illinois Sierra Club urged the Peoria City Council to take up a moratorium on pipeline development until those new safety rules come out. But Hayes said issuing a moratorium would have a "very limited impact" at best.

"The legislation is highly favorable to this industry in this particular subset of uses. And so our ability to impact the regulatory outcomes are going to be limited," he said.

At most, Hayes said an argument about the pipeline's proximity to a residential area on the South Side might result in additional safety measures, if BioUrja and Wolf Carbon Solutions move forward.

Outgoing at-large city council member Beth Jensen summed the sentiments of many around the horseshoe about the pipeline.

"I understand the benefits of it. I just have concerns. I want us to be cautious," Jensen said.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Wolf Carbon Solutions' Noppinger said the company has an "impeccable safety record" in response to concerns about running the pipeline near homes, referencing the company's existing pipeline in Alberta, Canada.

"We have developed safety protocol and emergency response plans from the operation of that pipeline system that ensure safety above and beyond any protocols in the U.S., as we develop our pipeline in the Mt. Simon hub in Iowa and Illinois," he said.

Noppinger said he believes pipelines are a safer way to transport carbon dioxide than tankers or rail cars. He said Wolf Carbon Solutions wants a transparent process, adding the company has engaged with Peoria city and county officials as recently as last week.

Oyler asked the council to adopt a "neutral" position on the proposal. He claimed BioUrja is trying to be a "good steward" for the community, but he said the company was "kind of put on the spot" with the timing of questions about the project as they're still considering their options.

"I think there's a lot more analysis and conversation to have in terms of what really is and isn't the safest solution and direction here," he said. "Not to mention, you know, we've gotten guidance from the federal government that's incentivizing this, and it's a 100-plus million dollar investment into our economy if they move forward with these activities."

Hayes said BioUrja's Peoria ethanol plant produces 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. At the current subsidy rates, he calculates the company could rake in $34 million a year by capturing its emissions. Mayor Ali noted infrastructure costs could eat into that margin, however.

Outgoing at-large council member Sid Ruckriegel said he believes this early point in the process is the right time to start asking questions.

"This needs to be the Post-It note that is on the top of the desk, so this never gets lost. There's a lot more information that's going to have to come out to be able to make full judgments on this," Ruckriegel said.

Second District council member Chuck Grayeb was the only elected official to openly oppose the pipeline, and he criticized his fellow council members for not joining him by taking a hard line.

"It's just wrong. It's wrong. And I can't help but believe that they're looking to us to send a message. And we're sending a message of mixed signals at best. Big mistake tonight. Huge strategic failure on the part of this council not to stand up and say, 'No, we're not interested,'" he said.

Fourth District council member Andre Allen suggested the city reach out to neighboring communities like East Peoria and Bartonville so the region can formulate a united position on the pipeline.

Hayes said BioUrja wants to make a decision on how to proceed with carbon capture by the start of 2024.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.