Published February 6th, 2024 at 9:19 AM6 minute read
The pipeline runs right through Kenny Davis’ modest Scott County, Illinois, farm, where he had planned to build a home for him and his wife once he retired from working as an electrical lineman.
Davis’ retirement came in 2020, but the new house never did.
“I can’t do that now,” he said. “I’ve got a pipeline right here.”
He points out a roughly 30-foot-wide clearing straight through the surrounding forest where the natural gas pipeline runs underneath.
“I didn’t want that gap,” Davis said. “It’s changed my whole outlook on this farm.”
The Midwest has thousands of miles of oil and natural gas pipelines running underneath farmland, forests, and even rivers. And many more pipeline projects are being proposed as part of efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
President Biden has vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050. Lawmakers have supported clean energy projects to help do that, by sequestering CO2 and expanding hydrogen power. That will mean many new pipelines to carry CO2 and hydrogen over thousands of miles.
But the new pipeline proposals face stiff resistance from farmers and landowners who cite past projects that exposed regulatory gaps and left behind considerable damage.
Kenny Davis is eager to share his experience with natural gas company Spire and the harm he said it caused on his property.
Spire won approval in 2018 to construct a natural gas pipeline through southern Illinois to supply the St. Louis region. The 65-mile route was up and running by 2019, but left a wake of damage on dozens of local properties, like Davis’s.
He said he didn’t have much of a choice as Spire used the power of eminent domain to condemn the part of his property they wanted for the pipeline. And now, nearly five years after construction finished, Davis said there are lasting problems, like how the small creek on his property is now eroding, and flows differently
“The new creek channel right here, it’s hitting this bank,” he said. “That all is just going to cave in.”
And then there are the large chunks of wood buried in the ground. He said the company left behind the wooden platforms they used to support the heavy machinery that installed the pipeline.
“This is a big issue with all the debris underground,” Davis said. “You can see where it’s coming up.”
Davis’ experience is far from unique.
Further south, Ray Sinclair also has leftover wood buried in the fields of his family farm. He adds that the construction changed the slope of his soybean fields, causing water to pool in low areas.
“This green spot is a wet spot that we were not able to plant. We couldn’t even drive a tractor through it, it was too muddy,” Sinclair said. “It did have frogs in it (last) spring, it was that wet.”
Others have lost productivity too, he said, adding that some farmers along the route have told him their yields have been cut in half.
The Illinois Attorney General is now suing Spire over these ongoing damages. Spire disputes the claims and has said it has adequately restored the majority of property it worked on. The company provided a statement saying it was “ready and willing to perform the remediation necessary to allow for full restoration,” and that it had reached agreements with the majority of impacted landowners.
As frustrated as Davis, Sinclair and others are with Spire, they say government regulators failed to hold the company accountable.
“The rules and regulations are there, but that’s just for looks,” Sinclair said.
Rules like returning the land to the way it was before construction ever happened.
To Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) the damage is a wakeup call.
“The Spire situation has proven how much we need to update pipeline rules,” she said. “Somebody has to be watching and checking up on what these companies are doing.”
Duckworth acknowledges pipelines are a critical part of the country’s transition away from fossil fuels, and natural gas is a stopgap in that transition.
“We need to make sure that (pipelines) are operated safely and in a way that does not damage the environment,” she said. “And if there is damage that occurs, it has to be remediated.”
More pipelines have been proposed and permitted to carry CO2 for sequestration and hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas. Many are eligible for large tax breaks from the Inflation Reduction Act.
“There has been a collective choice to go down this path,” said Tara Righetti, chair of energy and environmental policy at the University of Wyoming. “Pretty much all of the modeling shows that carbon removal to some extent is going to be necessary.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has created new rules that would require power generation facilities to retrofit with technology to capture CO2, Righetti added. They and other big emitters, like ethanol facilities, chemical and cement plants, will need pipelines to connect to places where captured CO2 can be sequestered, she said.
The captured gas can’t be pumped underground just anywhere; it takes a certain type of geology. Suitable places are concentrated along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, Midwest and Great Plains, and often not directly next to large polluters.
Righetti explained that this means the current 5,000 miles of operating CO2 pipelines could grow 10 times over. There are 20 projects proposed in Louisiana alone.
She described them as “really long pipeline networks that sort of spider web across (the country),” adding, “I think a lot of this initially will be developed in relatively rural areas.”
But those projects have been a tough sell in those areas.
Last year Navigator CO2 scrapped its plan for 1,300 miles of CO2 pipelines across the Midwest that would have sequestered carbon in Illinois. And operations of Summit Carbon Solutions’ 2,000 mile network have been delayed by years after North Dakota and South Dakota rejected the company’s permit requests.
“We’re filling rooms with people and the consensus is just, ‘No. We don’t want it,’” said Jared Bossly, a fourth-generation farmer and rancher in northern South Dakota who rejected Summit’s proposal to build on his property.
Bossly cites nearby farmers who have parts of the Keystone oil pipeline on their property. More than a decade since construction, their fields still aren’t as productive after the damage, he said.
He said the company told them, “You’ll never even know it’s there.” But added, “I’ve seen pictures, you can see right across the crop field exactly where that pipe goes.”
Fifth-generation corn, soy and wheat farmer Mark Lapka has similar reasons for his opposition to Summit’s CO2 pipeline traversing his family farm.
“There’s a lot of empty promises,” he said. “With the disturbance of that soil where the pipelines are put in, it will take lifetimes to get that productivity back.”
Lapka and Bossly also bristle at the prospect of eminent domain, a process where private property can be condemned and taken by a government entity for projects that the public will benefit from.
“The intent of pipelines is to deliver a product or commodity to a consumer at a cheaper rate of transportation in order to save them dollars,” Lapka said. “Here you had a project that wasn’t going to be delivering any commodity to a consumer. They were going to be burying it in the ground.”
Proponents of CO2 pipelines say they would extend the life of the ethanol industry, which in turn supports corn growers. But Bossly counters that it won’t directly benefit farmers who would have to give up their land.
“You get absolutely nothing from this CO2 thing,” he said. “You’re just going to get this one time check and then it’s done. How come we don’t get paid as long as that pipeline is being used?”
It’s a point Righetti raises too, especially since rural landowners will be shouldering more of the risk from these projects.
“How does this benefit them?” she said. “Other than to the extent that it benefits the general public from the purpose of mitigating climate change.”
She argues this infrastructure is necessary for reducing carbon emissions without ceasing use of all fossil fuels, but the rural communities these pipelines cut through should have the opportunity to benefit from the billions of dollars these projects stand to generate.
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation. It’s being distributed through Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest.