Democratic support for carbon dioxide pipelines spurs backlash

September 20, 2021

Democrats hoping to score their biggest-ever win on climate change in a pair of infrastructure bills are drawing pushback from environmental activists and some climate hawks on the Hill over an issue that usually unites them against oil companies: new pipelines.

But rather than pipelines like Keystone XL, Dakota Access or Line 3, the new dispute is over proposed federal money to build infrastructure that would ship carbon dioxide from the industrial sites where the greenhouse gas is emitted to places where it can be stored underground.

While the $2 billion included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill for new CO2 pipelines is only a small percentage of the $550 billion in new spending in that package, opponents say any money that enables the oil and gas industry to keep producing fossil fuels is a bad idea — and could prove dangerous for the communities that lie in the paths of the pipelines.

Backers of carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies such as White House climate envoy John Kerry, progressive Sen. Ed Markey and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, argue that fighting climate change will require every tool in the toolbox. And they acknowledge that including support for the nascent technology is critical to winning the backing of enough lawmakers to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package and much larger $3.5 trillion Democratic reconciliation bill.

But critics call the money in the bill a giveaway to the fossil fuel companies who already operate pipelines that ship carbon dioxide to oil fields to increase the output of crude from aging wells. Many of those companies are likely be the biggest players in the carbon capture industry, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Dow and Calpine, who are pushing a major carbon capture plan for the Houston Ship Channel, home to several major oil refineries.

Opponents of the federal spending also argue that not enough is known about how the gas reacts in pipelines, how safe it is to store large amounts in one area, or even how to react to potentially deadly carbon dioxide leaks.

Even opponents of carbon capture plans such as Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) say the political sensitivities around what the White House considers a must-pass bill mean that the $2 billion for CO2 pipelines is most likely to stay in the infrastructure package. Huffman, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is one of the few Democrats in Washington who has spoken out against the government funding carbon capture infrastructure.

“Show me the community in southern Illinois that wants a new deposit of CO2 in the ground," Huffman said in an interview, referring to the state that is host to a major carbon storage pilot project. "The Senate bill doesn’t have any sideboards at all. There’s no requirement that it reduce emissions at all. A lot more regulation is needed.”

Opponents, however, have some deep experience in fighting pipeline projects. Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party who spearheaded efforts against the now-canceled Keystone XL pipeline, said she and other activists have received calls from farmers in Nebraska complaining they were receiving letters from pipeline companies seeking meetings to consider their land for siting of a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline system.

Now Kleeb and her allies are holding seminars, calling lawyers and urging Democrats to push back against the technology, even as the infrastructure bill nears a vote in the House later this month.

“There is such little education on this out there, even among climate champions, that people feel like they’re getting sold, just like they got sold with fracking early on,” Kleeb said. “That money for pipelines shouldn't be in there, I’m sorry. If these measures are necessary, let oil companies handle them, not taxpayers.”

They aren't alone. The Sierra Club also opposes carbon capture projects and carbon dioxide pipelines, calling them “schemes to extend the life of the fossil fuel industry at a time when we know we need to just transition to clean energy.”

Joye Braun, a community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said her group would assist native tribes who want to protest proposed carbon dioxide pipelines that would run through their land, including any that follow the routes mapped for the Dakota Access pipeline or that had been set aside for Keystone XL.

“You would need vast amounts of pipeline to even make a dent in what we are polluting,” Braun said. “Again, our Indigenous communities will be on the front lines, with [the pipelines] going through our territories without our informed consent. ... We are saying enough is enough.”

Currently, there are about 5,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines crisscrossing a dozen states in the U.S., a tiny fraction of the 2.6 million miles of fossil fuel pipelines, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Up to 66,000 more miles of carbon dioxide network needs to be built by 2030, according to estimates by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and other industry organizations cited in a 2015 PHMSA study.

Given their relatively modest footprint, the general public and emergency responders have little knowledge of how to deal with leaks.

And the gas itself can be fatal: A release of carbon dioxide from a volcanic crater lake in Cameroon in 1986 killed 1,700 people. In a February 2020 leak of carbon dioxide from a pipeline in Satartia, Miss., firefighters and police officials were initially puzzled about what caused residents to call 911 complaining of nausea and breathing troubles, though they eventually evacuated the town.

After that leak, PHMSA investigated the CO2 pipeline operation manual for Denbury, the company that operated the Mississippi pipeline. The agency found several violations, including that its operations manual did not include instructions on how to shut the pipeline down, only start it. But ultimately the agency did not levy any penalties against Denbury for the Mississippi accident or even start an investigation into the incident itself. An inspection report Denbury filed with the agency notes 200 people had to be moved from the area with 45 taken to the hospital. After the leak was fixed, toxicologists inspected homes to ensure they were safe to return to.

A report by Denbury said heavy rains caused soil around the pipeline to shift, causing a breech in the steel. A PHMSA spokesperson did not reply to questions on the Denbury incident.

Bill Caram, executive director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on pipeline safety, said CO2 pipelines "are a whole different animal” than the oil or gas pipelines that emergency response officials are used to dealing with.

"Natural gas, with a leak, it will lift, it’s lighter than air. CO2 moves along the ground and asphyxiates." he said. "CO2 is also more corrosive on pipelines, which means these incidents could be more likely to happen if not regulated properly."

“If we’re going to be building out," he added, "I don’t know if we’re at a place where we can decide whether the risks are worth it.”

The oil industry, which has the most experience in moving hazardous materials, is making a big bet that carbon dioxide pipelines will be a major part of its future as the Biden administration seeks to put the U.S. on a path to zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

When asked about the concerns raised by green groups and safety advocates, a spokesperson for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America reiterated the industry view that pipelines were the best option for transporting gases.

“Pipelines remain the safest and most efficient way to transport natural gas and other energy products, including CO2,” said Amy Brown Conway, a senior director at FTI Consulting speaking on behalf of INGAA, in an email. “Any practical plan to reduce emissions must include and recognize the value of natural gas and related infrastructure — including CCUS infrastructure that will help reduce emissions while supporting the affordable and reliable energy provided by natural gas.”

The CO2 pipeline buildout is already playing out in the Midwest. Navigator, a company that operates several oil and gas pipelines in the South, is currently developing a network of pipelines that would take the CO2 from ethanol and fertilizer plants in five Midwestern states to an underground storage facility in southern Illinois.

Navigator is working through the permit process with the EPA, said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, Navigator’s vice president of government and public affairs. It’s also talking with people who live along the planned pipeline route to explain the project — that it would not carry fossil fuels and, by the company’s estimates, prevent 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere every year, the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the road.

Navigator has “heard murmurs” of criticism coming its way from environmental groups opposed to the project, Burns-Thompson said in an interview. The company chalks it up to CO2 pipelines being a relatively unknown quantity, she said.

“It lends itself to unknowns,” she said. “That’s where the education pieces become important. I want to push back against rumors about prolonging fossil fuels. We’re not serving the fossil fuel industry. From an environmental viewpoint, we don’t check a lot of the boxes that would cause criticisms.”

“In this case, we want to decarbonize,” Burns-Thompson added. “From an environmental perspective, if you want to decarbonize, what’s the quickest way to do so? This checks the box.”

But Huffman said the White House should ensure that none of the money goes to projects that would use the gas to help pump more oil — a technology called enhanced oil recovery — and he dismissed carbon capture as "all a joke" that won't reduce the quantity of emissions that the technology’s backers say it will. And he warns that the bill throws money at a technology that will likely stir up protests in communities that don’t want large amounts of carbon dioxide stored underground near their homes.

“Will we need to figure out ways to safely store permanently CO2?” Huffman said. "Absolutely. That doesn't mean you go and subsidize oil companies to build infrastructure to extract more oil."

By:  Ben Lefebvre
Source: E&E News