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Another large crowd attends McLean County hearing on carbon sequestration strategy

Colin Hardman
Another large crowd attended Tuesday night's meeting of the McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals to discuss a carbon mitigation strategy for the county.

The topic of carbon dioxide sequestration saw the latest of many hotly contested local meetings of the McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday night. And, once again, a large public turnout to discuss the county's strategy going forward caused the meeting to exceed its three-hour limit, prompting another meeting next week.

Applicant OneEarth Energy is seeking a special-use permit to build three sequestration wells in cooperation with agricultural landowners in the county. The wells would be used to confine carbon underground after it is captured at OneEarth’s ethanol production plant in Gibson City.

The wells would require a pressurized pipeline to transport CO2 to the wells, though this aspect could not be considered by the county Zoning Board of Appeals. Any pipeline would be handled at the state commerce commission level, while the board deals with permitting the wells themselves.

The technology in question drills deep into the ground to inject carbon dioxide into porous layers of stone, ideally placing it beneath impenetrable shale barriers. The inserted gas displaces extremely salty water (brine) already present there outward from the site until the well’s operator stops the process and seals the well. The process differs from fracking in that fracking deliberately causes cracks in rock layers, while sequestration is meant to avoid them.

In theory, the sequestered CO2 remains underground indefinitely.

This still left plenty of controversy for Tuesday’s meeting. Of the dozens of public attendees, most opposed granting the permit. Nearby landowners on both sides of the issue were in attendance. Members of advocacy group Illinois People’s Action (IPA) were present as they have been at previous meetings. IPA executive director Don Carlson emphasized complaints about OneEarth’s lack of transparency.

“Everything the company has presented to the federal EPA needs to be disclosed to this county board before this county board can make any kind of valid decisions about the permit for OneEarth,” Carlson said during a break in the meeting. “In addition to that, there are some documents that are completely secret, like the financial assurance plan, which will explicitly say who’s on the hook if this company goes bankrupt or if there’s a major accident.”

A second transparency concern was OneEarth’s plan in the event of an emergency at the wells, which had been neither finalized nor provided to the board.

Colin Hardman / WGLT
McLean County Board member Lea Cline addresses the Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

Many commenters also viewed OneEarth’s application as rushed because the company hasn’t yet received project approval from the federal EPA. McLean County Board representative Lea Cline attended the meeting, saying the board should decline the application for this reason. Cline cited a section of county code that reads, in part:

“CO2 sequestration drilling operations shall be subject to the following standards: A permit has been obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a Class VI injection well for carbon dioxide sequestration.”

After the meeting, county building and zoning director Phil Dick clarified that it is possible OneEarth could potentially receive a zoning permit now, but without the EPA’s go-ahead, no building permit can be approved. Even so, accusations that the early application is an attempt to avoid any future state level regulation were common.

For its part, OneEarth representatives emphasized their collaboration with the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) to find optimal and safe sites. OneEarth president Steven Kelly espoused a commitment to continuous monitoring to ensure well safety, including data on seismic activity, corrosion, pressure and temperature present in well areas.

Aside from offering testimony outlining the project and its monitoring setup, OneEarth was relatively quiet during the more than two hours of public questions and testimony.

There was some implication that their engagement of public comments will take place later, but after the meeting hit its time limit without a decision, Kelly declined to comment further while the permit was still in “limbo.”

The board will meet again Nov. 14 at the Government Center.

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Colin Hardman is a correspondent at WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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