By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
LE ROY, Ill. -- This expanse of central Illinois is flat as a pancake, with corn and soybean fields stretching to the horizon, interrupted only by a smattering of small towns.
But it is also a 175-mile missing link in Enbridge's Alberta-to-Texas pipeline network to transport gooey, thick bitumen oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.
By connecting the southern Illinois oil transport hub of Patoka with an Enbridge pipeline near Pontiac, the Canadian firm, in partnership with Exxon Mobil, could beat out other companies that have also announced plans for pipelines connecting Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Several farmers are standing in Enbridge's way, however, refusing to let the company build the pipeline through their land. At a public meeting, Bob Kelly, 81, called Enbridge "highway robbers." He said there is no way he will allow the company to tear up farmland that has been in his family for 125 years. "It's not for sale at any price," he said.
Enbridge is offering to pay farmers market value for use of a 120-foot-wide strip of their land, plus fees for crop loss and soil damage. The farmers would retain the rights to their land, and the company said they could continue farming on top of the pipeline, which would be five feet underground once completed. A number of farmers have signed on.
"It should be seen as progress to bring some crude oil down here to central Illinois," said John Gramm, 76, of Gridley. "It's good for business and labor, and it makes us less dependent on foreign oil."
Arguing that the pipeline would provide a public benefit, Enbridge has petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission to grant it the power of eminent domain. About 250 regional landholders have filed with the panel as "interveners" to argue against the petition.
One of them is Carlisle Kelly (no relation to Bob), a Le Roy farmer who owns one of the area's rare wooded, hilly patches of land. He bought the land a decade ago to nurture wild turkeys and other wildlife, and he took advantage of federal grants to plant thousands of trees and thousands of acres of prairie grass. He said he was "more than furious" when Enbridge representatives told him the company had bought a defunct pipeline that runs through his land and needed to survey the area for the new pipeline.
"I bought this land with my hard-earned money from working all my life on the railroad," said Kelly, 54, a former Amtrak employee. "If they pay enough they'll find people willing to sell, and they can build their pipeline in a zigzag pattern. But they can't force me to give up my land."
In 1997 the Illinois Commerce Commission rejected a request by Lakehead Pipe Line, an Enbridge subsidiary, for eminent domain to build a pipeline in northern Illinois.
"This is not a public agency carrying out a public project like a highway," said Howard A. Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, based in Chicago. "It's a private Canadian company moving oil to make a profit."
Farmers said they are concerned about a fire along an Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota that killed two welders in November and incidents on Enbridge pipelines in Wisconsin, including a 126,000-gallon spill in February that contaminated the water table. They also worry that the pipeline would interfere with the underground tile drainage system needed to keep their once-swampy land farmable.
Enbridge spokeswoman Denise Hamsher said that there would be little danger from the pipeline and that farmers would be compensated for any damage.
Thomas J. Pliura, a Le Roy attorney for residents opposed to the petition, said locals think they would get no direct benefit from the pipeline.
"The irony is you have a Canadian foreign company coming in here demanding eminent domain to take American land to transport oil that could then be sold to China," said Pliura, who has since visited the oil-sand excavation sites in Alberta.
The 36-inch-diameter Pontiac-Patoka pipeline would transport 400,000 barrels of diluted oil sands daily, with the capacity for 800,000 if pumping stations were added. David Sykuta, executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, called the $350 million project "absolutely vital" to the nation's oil economy.
Opponents said that because companies including Kinder Morgan and Altex Energy have also announced plans to build Alberta-to-Texas pipelines, market forces will ensure that the oil sands get refined.
"But if everyone says 'not in my back yard,' it's very feasible none of these projects will be built," Hamsher said.