Congress must push for a stronger regulatory framework for pipelines

December 07, 2023

If I’ve learned anything after a decade in Congress, it’s that Big Oil and its congressional allies never miss an opportunity to push the fossil fuel agenda.  So it’s no surprise that right now, fossil fuel advocates are trying to hitch a ride on the historic clean energy investment opportunities in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA). 

Oblivious to the climate crisis, impervious to the economic, social justice and national security arguments for getting America off the fossil fuel roller coaster, carbon polluters want to use these new federal funding pipelines to finance actual pipelines that lock-in decades of dependence on their planet-killing products and delay the clean energy transition.  

That’s why so many congressional Republicans are extolling the virtues of pipelines lately. Pipelines are clean! Pipelines are safe! Pipelines are climate solutions!  

These claims are false. Pipelines are disasters waiting to happen, and you don’t have to wait long: Every day, someplace in America, a pipeline is leaking, spilling or exploding. A major new hazardous gas leak is reported to the federal government every 40 hours

The really big ones make headlines, such as when catastrophic explosions of natural gas pipelines and liquified natural gas (LNG) facilities kill people; or when projects like the Keystone Pipeline spring a leak and dump thousands of barrels of oil into vulnerable ecosystems and communities; or when an undersea pipeline ruptures and spreads inky, toxic plumes into the ocean like last month in Louisiana, when 1.1 million gallons of crude gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.   

But most incidents don’t make headlines. Minor leaks can go undetected for years until something big and terrible happens. A new study reveals that over the past decade, more than 2,600 hazardous gas pipeline leaks in the United States killed 122 people, caused over $4 billion in damages, and released 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane and C02.  

America’s sprawling network of oil, gas, and petrochemical pipelines has a dismal safety record. Yet the industry wants to build a lot more — including new types of pipelines to carry fossil-generated hydrogen and transport C02 from power plants and refineries to oil fields, where it is injected underground to enhance oil production. Their cynical plan is to convince the federal government that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a climate solution entitled to subsidies under the IRA and IIJA. With this funding, the industry hopes to quadruple the existing C02 pipeline network and enhance drilling productivity in order to extract and burn more fossil fuels than ever before.  

Before this runaway carbon pollution train gets further down the track, Congress should scrutinize the industry’s plans and establish essential guardrails, starting with pipelines.

Any infrastructure that expands fossil fuel production worsens the climate crisis and brings more toxic waste biproducts and pollution that disproportionately harms low-income people and communities of color.  Moreover, the proposed CCS pipelines are literally guaranteed to leak, rupture or explode. Leaks in the C02 capture and storage system will occur at every stage from wells to pipelines to compressor stations to power plants and storage facilities, just like with LNG. Also like LNG, CO2 pipelines require compressor stations to maintain pressure and move content through pipeline networks, but emit air pollutants like NOx, fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, benzene and formaldehyde.  

CO2 pipeline accidents will be catastrophic and hard to prevent. CO2 is an asphyxiant, heavier than air, doesn’t ignite, and it can move far from a pipeline in dangerous, even lethal, concentrations when failures occur. Large releases of this dense gas accumulate in low-lying areas as deadly ground-level CO2 clouds. Yet unlike fossil fuel pipelines, many CO2 pipelines do not clearly fall under existing safety regulations; they operate in a regulatory grey area. 

The failure of the Denbury Gulf Coast Pipeline in 2020, which ended up sending dozens of residents to the hospital, highlights the threat these pipelines pose. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) found that company behind this pipeline (now owned by Exxon) significantly underestimated the potential impact of the explosion, conducted inadequate monitoring, and waited too long to notify PHMSA.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean energy is an opportunity to reduce our reliance on the rickety web of pipelines that move dangerous, toxic, volatile substances all over this country every day. But because that transition takes time, we must demand stronger regulatory checks and safeguards to prevent pipeline disasters. 

Luckily, PHMSA is up for reauthorization. Congress must direct PHMSA to develop robust regulatory frameworks for this inherently dangerous infrastructure, and to make these necessary safety improvements now — before the industry unleashes its predictable lobbying and public relations blitz for CO2 pipelines. 

Pipelines are not clean, safe or climate-friendly, no matter what the industry says. They are inherently dangerous and prone to leaks, ruptures and explosions with devastating consequences. And they’re being pushed to worsen the climate crisis, not to confront it. 

Those of us who care about the health and safety of communities and the livability of our planet have a responsibility to push back against the reckless fossil fuel agenda. PHMSA reauthorization deserves more attention as an important part of the fight against carbon pollution. Please join me in pushing Congress and the Biden administration to put communities, the environment, and our climate goals above the fossil fuel industry’s cynical agenda.

By:  Jared Huffman
Source: The Hill