Kathleen Campbell, 71, stands on her property where a private company had threatened to seize portions of it through eminent domain and is now an outspoken critic of carbon dioxide pipelines crossing through Central Illinois.
Kathleen Campbell, 71, stands on her property where a private company had threatened to seize portions of it through eminent domain and is now an outspoken critic of carbon dioxide pipelines crossing through Central Illinois. (Provided by Kathleen Campbell)

It was just weeks before Christmas in 2021 and it was bitterly cold outside when Kathleen Campbell opened an unsolicited package from an unknown company.  

“The company was called Navigator who said they were building a pipeline and they were asking us for an easement, but that if we refused they would condemn our property and ask for eminent domain,” Campbell, 71, said. “I suddenly felt sick to my stomach and started panicking. I didn’t even know they could do that.”

Campbell and her husband Craig Campbell bought the home in the 1980s and the pair planned to live out their retirement enjoying their one acre of land that featured seven gardens, organic vegetation and a fountain. That was now at risk, she said. 

Navigator CO2 Heartland Greenway was embarking on a project to build more than 1,000  miles of pipeline through five states, ending in central Illinois. That pipeline would transport highly pressurized liquid carbon dioxide. 

“After I got over my panic, I started reading about the project and other projects like this,” said Campbell, who’s part of a coalition working to stop the pipeline. “I am not an activist by nature but I became an accidental activist and we are working to be protected from this kind of project.” 

Environmental groups are ringing the alarm that Illinois is at the precipice of a rush of corporations coming into the state to lay thousands of miles of pipelines and the proper guardrails aren’t in place to protect its residents. 

The goal of the pipeline is to capture carbon dioxide in a liquified state from a factory or power plant before it’s released into the atmosphere. Then transport that liquified carbon dioxide in the pressurized pipeline and store it deep underground — a process billed as a way to clean up dirty industries and reduce overall carbon emissions. 

Carbon capture and storage has been around since the 1920s, but became commercialized in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the past two decades that it is now seen as a way to address the climate crisis. 

But, environmental groups like the Sierra Club Illinois are skeptical if this process can actually deliver on its promises. 

“We are poised to be a ground zero state for this carbon capture, utilization and storage industrial process and we don’t have the adequate protections in place,” said Christine Nannicelli, Sierra Club Illinois’ Beyond Coal campaign representative. “There are a lot of question marks and we have an enormous amount of skepticism about how effective it will be for a climate solution.”

A flood of federal dollars has triggered a gold rush for companies across the country looking to prop up carbon capture and storage pipelines nationwide. The geological makeup of Illinois has made it a prime location to not only transport carbon dioxide but also store it. 

The Mount Simon Sandstone in Illinois is said to be the reason why the state is ripe for an influx of carbon storage infrastructure. The formation is deep underground — which can exceed 3,200 feet in thickness — and is able to keep the carbon dioxide in a liquid state.

A layer of impermeable rock is also above the formation which can keep the carbon dioxide from rising to the surface.

Andy Bates, a spokesman for the Navigator, said Central Illinois is the ideal location because of these properties and “allow for safe, permanent storage of” carbon dioxide.  

“There’s extensive work that has been completed by the US Department of Energy and the Illinois Geologic Survey teams that lead to this area being one of the most researched and now well-understood geologic formations in the country,” Bates said.

Navigator filed for a permit in February to construct and operate a pipeline that would essentially transport captured carbon dioxide that is being emitted by facilities in South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois. The carbon dioxide is then injected into a permanent underground storage. 

The 1,350 miles long pipeline would travel through these five states and have 21 collection sites. The Illinois portion would be about 292 miles of pipeline crossing through 13 counties starting in Hancock County in the west and splits north to Henry County and stretches southeast to Montgomery County. 

If approved, the project could break ground as early as the second quarter of 2024.

The Navigator Heartland Greenway would include more than 290 miles of liquid carbon dioxide in Illinois and travel through 13 counties. (Illinois Commerce Commission and Navigator Heartland Greenway)

Navigator isn’t the only pipeline project looking to gain access to Illinois. Wolf Carbon Solutions is also trying to develop a 280-mile carbon dioxide pipeline that begins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and ends in Decatur.  

The Biden Administration — through the U.S. Department of Energy — has ramped up funding to build a carbon dioxide removal industry . In February, it announced its plans to provide $2.5 billion to accelerate carbon capture, transport and storage systems. 

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 also significantly increases the tax credit values for these projects going from $50 per metric ton for carbon dioxide storage to $85 per metric ton

The Navigator project alone is expected to capture, transport and store up to 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — possibly $850 million a year in tax credits.

“Given how lucrative these new subsidies are at the federal level the industry is looking for a blank check to run wild in different parts of the country and Illinois is looking like a good spot for them,” Nannicelli said. 

“Their land can be cannibalized” 

A primary concern facing residents is the threat of corporations coming in and seizing part of their property through eminent domain — a process used to take over private land for public use.

“I find it terrifying that anyone can come and just take part of your property,” Campbell said. “Like what kind of property rights do we have here? This can leave a lot of people in trouble.”

In Navigator’s permit they have requested this power but expressed its commitment to negotiating with landowners in good faith. Though it said it needed the ability “to take and acquire easements and interest in private property” through eminent domain if a landowner refuses to negotiate. 

“We take this process very seriously and understand its significance to our agricultural industry and affected landowners,” Bates said.

Nannicelli said there are currently no protections in the state for property owners from corporations like Navigator and most at risk are farmers who need their land for survival. 

“Companies like Navigator are essentially saying they have rights to these families’ land and these families are feeling legally threatened that their land can be cannibalized,” said Nannicelli. “It’s a land grab … and from our perspective this is technology and a process that serves corporate interest far more than the public.”

Ariel Hampton, legal and governmental affairs manager for the Illinois Environmental Council, said this practice can allow companies to bully property owners into meeting its terms. 

“It is super important for folks to feel comfortable and safe in their homes and not feel that some entity can come in and take what doesn’t belong to them,” Hampton said. “We don’t want folks dealing with the burden of a private company coming in and disrupting their lives while that company makes a ton of money off federal incentives.” 

Several groups like the Illinois Environmental Council and Sierra Club Illinois are calling on  state legislatures to pass a bill that would enact tougher regulations on companies building these pipelines. It also would prevent those companies from using eminent domain. 

“The bill, HB 3119, would also make owners and operators actually liable over the pipeline and prevent that liability being transferred to the state and taxpayers after a company is done with the injection and meets a few requirements,” Hampton said. “We need the operators to do the monitoring and the post-injection care and report out rather than it becoming the state’s liability and therefore the taxpayer’s liability.”

There is also the concern over safety, Campbell said. 

“I come from a plumber’s household and I know pipes rupture all the time,” Campbell said. “We know what happened in Satartia already.” 

In 2020, a pipeline in Satartia, Miss. transporting carbon dioxide ruptured and started gushing out a densely, powdery white cloud that sank into the ground and was “cold enough to make steel so brittle it can be smashed with a sledgehammer,” according to a Huffpost investigation

Nearly 50 people were hospitalized and about 300 residents had to evacuate the area.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a federal agency responsible for pipeline oversight, said it needed to strengthen its safety oversight of carbon dioxide pipelines following its investigation into the disaster.

“I think that everything is a risk-benefit analysis and these projects’ risks far exceed the benefit,” Campbell said. “There is no doubt we have a climate problem, absolutely, but this pipeline is too dangerous. Solar and wind projects are so much safer, why aren’t we investing all that money into that?”

Manny comes to Illinois Answers Project after four years at the Chicago Sun-Times where he most recently covered transportation. During his time at the Sun-Times, he covered a broad range of topics, including communities and the U.S. Census Bureau. Manny joined the Sun-Times as a Report for America corps member with a mission to strengthen the paper’s coverage of issues facing the city’s South and West Sides. Manny is a Chicago native who has a background in service and solution journalism - which was showcased during his time at City Bureau, a nonprofit civic media organization. He was part of teams that reported on dwindling community-policing initiatives, public health issues related to building demolitions and how incarcerated people struggle to seek post-conviction relief. Manny also has written for the Chicago Reader, WBEZ Chicago, The Groundtruth Project, and South Side Weekly. He graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.