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Permit for CO2 wells in eastern McLean County to go before full board

The McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals heard over three hours of testimony regarding carbon sequestration zoning on Tuesday before continuing the hearing to Oct. 31.
Colin Hardman
WGLT file
After nearly a month of public hearings, the county's Zoning Board of Appeals voted Tuesday to recommend the application from One Earth Sequestration, a subsidiary of One Earth Energy.

An application for a special-permit that would allow the drilling of three carbon storage wells in eastern McLean County is headed to the full county board for a vote.

After nearly a month of public hearings, the county's Zoning Board of Appeals voted to recommend the application from One Earth Sequestration, a subsidiary of One Earth Energy.

The ZBA's vote late Tuesday signaled that members believed the Gibson City-based company's plans to drill carbon sequestration wells in Cheneys Grove and Anchor townships met the county's criteria for special-use permits.

One Earth Energy wants to begin carbon capture and storage operations as part of an effort to broaden its manufacturing capacity, according to previous hearing testimony from board member Jack Murray.

Murray told the county's zoning board that as consumers pivot to electric vehicle usage, the company expects the demand for ethanol to decline. In response, Murray said One Earth Energy is considering its ability to produce low-carbon ethanol for jet fuel, but would need to demonstrate to federal regulators that its greenhouse gas emissions had gone down significantly in order to do so.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) methods — lately championed and incentivized by the Biden administration as part of bringing the U.S. to net-zero emissions by 2030 — are touted as means of reducing the CO2 footprint of large producers. Instead of being released into the atmosphere, carbon gasses are captured, compressed and transported from their origin point into an underground "well."

How long the carbon can remain underground, whether it will leak into the air or into underground water sources and the extent to which CCS will help efforts to fight climate change have all been hotly debated during the public comment portions of the ZBA's hearings.

Comment to the ZBA ranged from farmers and landowners near the wells voicing their support of One Earth Energy to others urging caution and skepticism and to county residents not near the wells urging the ZBA to consider any potential dangers the county's source of drinking water when deciding whether to recommend the permit.

ZBA member Julia Turner said she felt that previous testimony from scientists and at least one engineer — including the former director of Energy and Minerals with the Illinois State Geological Survey — indicated the plan for the wells did not pose a major safety or health threat.

"What I find myself doing is listening, determining expertise level, what our parameters are and where I stand and how I feel about what's been presented under those parameters," Turner said. "I feel very much that we heard from some pretty established experts in the field."

McLean County assistant state's attorney Trevor Sierra told ZBA members Tuesday they could only consider the application as it related to the county's zoning authority — and not, say, based on whether it poses a threat to the entire Mahomet Aquifer, a specific concern that some public commenters urged the ZBA to consider when making its decision.

Ultimately, aside from one absent ZBA member, the vote to recommend the special permit be approved by the full county board was unanimous.

The recommendation made by the ZBA stipulates that One Earth Energy's permit be governed by a new zoning amendment that sets carbon well standards; the ZBA approved that text amendment last month, but it hasn't yet been approved by the county board.

The ZBA's vote Tuesday signaled a blow to public commenters who had given testimony either against the CO2 wells entirely, or had urged the board to wait for the Environmental Protection Agency before making any decisions.

Before One Earth Energy could begin any work, it must receive the EPA's approval and a permit from the federal agency. The EPA will evaluate the wells under a set of criteria that is aimed at protecting an "underground source of drinking water from thelong-term subsurface storage of carbon dioxide."

Dawn Dannebring, the lead environmental organizer for Bloomington-based Illinois People's Action, said Tuesday the advocacy group plans to continue its fight against the drilling of the wells.

"We are going to take this to the EPA; we've already been asked by the EPA to make comment on this. The ICC [Illinois Commerce Commision] — we have a chance to intervene there," she said. "I think the decision was baked in before we even had a chance to make a comment."

McLean County building and zoning director Phil Dick said the ZBA's recommendation to approve the special=permit will go before the full county board on Dec. 14.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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