Unlikely as it sounds, rural Illinois is getting a whiff of economic hope from some of the leading producers of air pollution.
Companies that use fossil fuels have come under pressure to address their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming and climate change.
In an ideal world, of course, emissions would stop altogether. Realistically, though, fossil fuels will be needed to produce electricity and industrial goods for decades to come. During that inevitably lengthy transition, something needs to be done to reduce their impact on the environment.
The solution may lie far under the Earth’s surface in the unique geology of what’s known as the Illinois Basin.
As the Chicago Tribune’s Nara Schoenberg recently reported, the state sits atop an expanse of porous sandstone covered with layers of shale. This naturally occurring rock formation is ideal for “carbon capture,” a technology still in its infancy that aims to take a substance that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere and instead bury it deep underground. The sandstone would absorb it and the shale would keep it in place, permanently.
An incredible amount of liquefied carbon dioxide could be sequestered in this way. The key formations in the Illinois Basin have the capacity to hold as much as 150 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Talk about clearing the air.
Already, over 4 million tons of carbon dioxide have been injected deep underground at the Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant in Decatur, and other projects are underway across the basin, making Illinois a leader in carbon capture research and development.
This is especially timely because last year’s Inflation Reduction Act significantly increases the federal funding for carbon capture, via grants and state incentives as well as a big boost in the credits per ton for storing carbon dioxide underground.
While we’re preternaturally skeptical of government handouts to industry, these investments in curbing climate change remind us of the federally funded R&D of the 1960s and 1970s that laid the groundwork for digital technologies like GPS satellites and the internet. Since then, federal funding for R&D has declined as a share of the economy, leaving innovation increasingly to the private sector.
Private interests alone cannot solve a problem as vast as carbon emissions.
Unsurprisingly, given the level of ambition, many early carbon capture projects have disappointed. We don’t fault the government for stepping in to advance a technology that has promise but needs scale.
Others, however, do. Hardcore environmentalists see any effort to reduce the impact of fossil fuels as playing into the hands of polluters who want business as usual. The mindset is that fossil fuels must go, period. Anything that would keep fossil-fuel plants operating, even if their carbon emissions could be dealt with responsibly, is therefore automatically bad.
This absolutist vision gives rise to unintended consequences. A good example is environmentalists’ knee-jerk hostility to new pipeline projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline that this page supported.
One of the main barriers to carbon capture technology is the bias against pipelines.
Skepticism is understandable from stewards of the land like John Feltham, of Illinois’ Knox County, whose century-old family farm is in the path of a proposed 1,300-mile underground pipeline for liquefied carbon dioxide. Among other concerns, Illinois landowners like Feltham fear accidents could result in a release of suffocating gas, horror-movie style. California, too, is facing opposition to pipelines needed for its ambitious carbon capture plans.
Illinois already is crisscrossed with pipelines because they are the most efficient and safest method for transporting oil and similar liquid commodities. Using trucks or rail cars results in more serious accidents, and more pollution, at a higher cost. While safety always should be the No. 1 consideration, pipelines like the one under consideration for Illinois pose less risk than alternatives: Just ask the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, recently assaulted by chemicals from a train wreck.
Another barrier to carbon capture technology is naysayers claiming that it could never work, no matter what innovations may come. As climate scientist Mark Jacobson of Stanford University told Schoenberg: “There’s just no evidence this stuff is useful. And all the evidence suggests it’s just a boondoggle and we could have spent all that money on actual emissions reduction.”
Other scientists disagree, saying carbon capture technology has game-changing potential, if looked at pragmatically. It won’t be cheap or easy, and as the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently reported, many questions remain to be answered. But it could play a meaningful role in achieving the “net zero” emissions goal of many companies, states and countries.
As senior research engineer Howard Herzog of MIT said in an interview last year on public radio: “We’re going to need a lot of technologies. We’re going to need every technology we can. Wind and solar and electric cars are all very important and very critical to the pathway. But while they’re necessary, they’re not sufficient to get us to net zero.”
There is no simple solution to climate change. We need more efficient use of carbon-emitting fuels, greater conservation and technological advances on multiple fronts to solve a problem that grows more visible every day in severe weather, drought, wildfires and flooding around the world.
Central Illinois can and should play an important part in the solution.