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Illinois Commerce Commission staff recommend denial of Wolf Carbon Solutions pipeline permit

Wolf Carbon Solutions

Staff with the Illinois Commerce Commission are recommending denial of a construction permit for the Wolf Carbon Solutions Mt. Simon Hub CO2 pipeline.

As envisioned, the pipeline would transport liquefied carbon dioxide captured from two ADM ethanol plants in Iowa to a permanent underground sequestration site in Decatur.

The issue is divisive, with labor unions and many business groups backing the plan as a job creator and economic driver. But many environmental groups raise safety concerns, calling carbon capture a "false solution" to climate change, and farmers have expressed fears about eminent domain and potential impacts on agricultural land.

Gas engineer Brett Seagle said he believes current construction guidelines for the pipelines do not adequately address public safety concerns. He said expected updates to federal regulations coming in the wake of a 2020 leak in Mississippi may also render the currently proposed route non-compliant.

Safety concerns were echoed by first responders in both the city of Peoria and Peoria County. In testimony, Logan-Trivoli Fire Protection District Fire Chief David Tuttle said Peoria County's emergency response plan currently doesn't adequately address how to react to a concentrated carbon dioxide release from a pipeline.

Tuttle, who is also the former director of Peoria's emergency communications center, said it takes 40 to 45 minutes for the Peoria Fire Department's hazmat team to get to most rural Peoria County locations assuming they leave immediately. That delay may lead to a situation where under equipped volunteer firefighters would have to enter an area with a toxic concentration of CO2, he said, adding the current federal safety rules are underdeveloped.

"The lack of information regarding the risks of a carbon dioxide pipeline prevents Peoria County and the LGTRFPD from being able to develop a response plan capable of targeting and mitigating those risks," Tuttle wrote.

Nathaniel Rice, the division chief of fire prevention for the Peoria Fire Department, flagged his own concerns. He said he doesn't think the department could currently respond to a CO2 pipeline leak along the proposed route.

The fire department only maintains 15 to 20 fully encapsulated suits at any one time. He said more suits would be needed, as well as electric vehicles that can function in a low-oxygen environment and a supplied air system, or additional air bottles or tanks. Additional training also would be needed. Rice said the best training is currently offered in Texas.

The Peoria hazardous materials team could be called out to incidents in Peoria, Stark, or Henry counties along the proposed pipeline route. But in the event of a major disaster, Rice said they could be dispatched anywhere.

Seagle said it also appears several hundred potentially affected landowners weren't properly notified, and said legal counsel notes the specific location of the up-to-200 foot project route width should have been submitted with the application.

Seagle notes the company hasn't reached a final binding agreement with ADM to transport and sequester the carbon underground in Decatur. ADM is expected to provide the bulk of the cash flow needed for the Mt. Simon Hub pipeline as a "foundational customer" of the project.

"Without a final binding agreement between the Applicant and ADM in place, it is not clear whether WCSUS possesses the financial qualifications necessary to construct and operate the proposed carbon dioxide pipeline," wrote Illinois Commerce Commission financial analyst Prabesh Bista.

Seagle also recommended the commission consider the "overwhelmingly negative public sentiment" when weighing the application. Anti-pipeline efforts have cropped up in communities along the proposed route. A Tazewell County group presented a petition with more than 1,000 signatures calling for a moratorium to the county board on Wednesday.

Wolf Carbon Solutions senior vice president of corporate development Nick Noppinger responded to the filings in a statement.

“While we are disappointed by the ICC staff’s recommendation, we understand that the regulatory process is designed to ensure that the commission makes an informed, balanced decision. Wolf is in the process of responding to the ICC staff’s preliminary questions and we are confident that all concerns will be addressed," he said.  

“Our response will demonstrate that we have worked collaboratively with ADM for more than two years and that we are actively working toward a final agreement, that CO2 pipelines have been safely operating and regulated by PHMSA in the U.S. for decades, and that our open and collaborative approach to landowner engagement — which we are confident the ICC will agree is the right approach — sets us apart from other developers," he continued.

The pipeline would run through nine Illinois counties, including Peoria, Tazewell, and Stark. Of those, Stark is the only county to take a formal stance against the pipeline.

Another company, Navigator CO2, mothballed its proposed carbon capture pipeline earlier this month, citing a difficult and "unpredictable" regulatory environment. Their Heartland Greenway pipeline would have terminated at sequestration sites in Christian and Montgomery counties in central Illinois.

The Illinois Commerce Commission must make a ruling by next May. Wolf Carbon Solutions wants to begin construction next year and get the pipeline into operation in 2025.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.