Who’s Afraid of a Carbon Capture Pipeline?

Lots of people, actually

By Heather Smith

July 3, 2022

A lot of big blue twisty pipes and valves in an industrial-looking space.

An enhanced oil recovery facility in Gaylord, MI. | Photo courtesy of the US Department of Energy

Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a barn burner of a report laying out an unpleasant reality: Cutting CO2 emissions is no longer enough—countries also need to capture CO2 and store it away. Historically, the United States has been late to the party when it comes to implementing IPCC recommendations, but when the report dropped, the United States was already in the early stages of a very specific boom in carbon capture infrastructure—specifically, new pipelines that would carry captured CO2.  

And yet, many of the people in the path of these new pipelines are not thrilled and instead are busily trying to get the pipelines’ permits denied. The New Orleans City Council recently passed a resolution, R-22-219, which seeks to ban carbon capture infrastructure in the area. Last year, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory council specifically cited carbon capture infrastructure as an example of projects that were not good for the communities they were located in (instead, the council recommended public transit, community microgrids, and sustainable housing).  

In Iowa, at least 20 counties have filed objections with state regulators against the use of eminent domain to build several pipelines, including 

– the $4.5 billion, 2,000-mile Midwest Carbon Express, which would carry CO2 across Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, to be stored in the rock beneath North Dakota (Summit, the company behind the pipeline, says it will be able to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon per year, an amount equal to removing 2.6 million vehicles from the road each year); and

– a $3 billion, 1,300-mile carbon capture pipeline planned by Navigator CO2 Ventures that would transport 15 million metric tons of CO2 per year from 18 ethanol plants in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota to an eventual destination in Illinois (Navigator says its pipeline has the capacity to capture about 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually—or 3.2 million vehicles’ worth per year).

Why are people hating on carbon capture pipelines? To find out, I turned to independent pipeline safety consultant and expert witness Richard Kuprewicz, who has worked in the oil and gas industry since the 1970s and authored a recent report on CO2 pipelines for the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust

Carbon pipelines are risky neighbors.

During the night of February 22, 2020, residents of Satartia, Mississippi, began calling 911. A greenish, rotten-smelling fog was settling into the valley around the town. Walking through the air stung like a bad sunburn. Callers said they were gasping for air, overcome with nausea, and sleepy and dazed. Some tried to drive out of the valley, only to find their cars wouldn’t start. 

First responders initially thought that it might be a leak from a nearby gas pipeline or chlorine from the local water tank. In reality, the source was a girth-weld failure in a 24-inch high-pressure pipeline in the hills above town that carried a mixture of supercritical CO2 and hydrogen sulfide. As the CO2 burst out of the rupture, it converted to gas and pooled in the valley below, displacing ambient oxygen and slowly asphyxiating those at the lowest elevation (similar accidents also occur in businesses, like restaurants, that store CO2 on-site). 

It took 15 minutes before word went out that first responders needed to put on SCBAs—the air tanks used by firefighters to enter burning buildings—before attempting to evacuate residents. Neither the fire department, the sheriff’s office, or the two local hospitals had any training in dealing with CO2 leaks. No one died, but 50 residents were hospitalized out of the nearly 300 who were evacuated from the area. Several report lingering fatigue, trouble breathing, and an understandable fear of falling asleep. 

Compared with oil and gas pipelines, which kill a lot more than zero people every year, carbon capture pipelines might look relatively safe. But while the United States has more miles of CO2 pipeline than anywhere else in the world (5,150 miles), that’s not much compared with the 229,287 total miles of oil and gas pipelines that already exist. If the United States builds out the 60,000-plus miles of carbon capture pipeline that a recent Princeton University study recommends, odds are high that we’ll see more Satartias too. 

The US needs strong federal safety standards that are designed specifically for carbon capture pipelines—and doesn’t have them yet. 

This boom is being turbocharged by federal incentives—specifically the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act and the 2021 SCALE Act, which provide tax breaks of up to $50 per ton of carbon that is sequestered as well as low-interest loans and grants for building out new carbon capture infrastructure. "We want to build more pipes," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told E&E News. "There's a lot of jobs that are associated with decarbonizing. . . . I think pipes are one of those opportunities."

Kuprewicz is less boosterish. “We're getting ahead of ourselves on pipelines,” he says. “For billions of dollars you can make smart people do incredibly stupid things.” Current regulations laid out by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) apply only to a specific category of CO2 pipelines—those that transport supercritical CO2 composed of 90 percent carbon dioxide molecules. Pipelines that ship CO2 at lower concentrations or in different forms might escape regulation for decades. “The way they're rushing kind of makes you wonder,” says Kuprewicz. “ ‘Gee, you're going ahead and doing these before you have safety regulations?’ ”

CO2 pipelines have some qualities that make thoughtful regulation even more important. They operate at such high pressure that when they fail, they tend to fail hard. A rupture can open up a pipeline like a zipper, creating a gash that is miles long. Oxygen levels drop, temperatures plummet to below freezing, and Co2 rolls out by the ton. Dry ice forms around the site of the explosion, which as it sublimates, sends fresh infusions of carbon dioxide to low-lying areas. A gas leak is no fun to be around, but at least it disperses quickly in open air. A cloud of CO2 like the one that settled over Satartia can linger for hours. 

There are ways to mitigate these risks, says Kuprewicz. If crack arrestors and valves are installed at frequent intervals along the length of a pipeline, any rupture is going to be smaller—hundreds of feet, instead of miles. Operating pressure also plays a key role in the relative safety of a CO2 pipeline—a six- or eight-inch-diameter pipeline will probably be a safer neighbor than the 48-inchers mentioned in the Princeton study

A responsible pipeline operator will go beyond the recommended practices from PHMSA. Beware of a company that will merely tell you that it is in compliance with the minimum of the federal pipeline safety regulations as written. “They are too—well, I'll use a technical term—too loosey-goosey," says Kuprewicz. 

Even if we do need pipelines, is this the right place to put them?

The captured carbon in the Iowa pipelines comes largely from biofuel projects. There’s a long-running debate over whether there are any climate benefits at all to using farmland to grow corn and soy specifically for biofuels when it could be growing food for people. Plus there’s the fact that the US ethanol industry depends on hefty subsidies that could be spent on projects that are both less environmentally dubious and more financially sustainable. 

Midwest farmers and ranchers, practiced from years of blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline, are not rolling out the welcome mat for ones that carry CO2—despite industry promises about the lifeline that they’ll provide to biofuels (which currently use half the US-grown corn and soy). 

The pipeline that ruptured uphill from Satartia was carrying CO2 that was being used for “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR) in a nearby oil field—a procedure where carbon dioxide is injected underground to force more petroleum to the surface. Most of those 5,000 miles of carbon-carrying pipeline currently deployed in the United States is ferrying it around for the oil industry. 

Since most of this injected CO2 appears to stay underground once it’s put there, enhanced oil recovery is an appealing option for oil and gas operations that are interested in (a) saying that they’re building a better, greener future, while (b) continuing to do what they’ve already been doing for decades, but on a larger scale and with better branding. 

The fact that the 45Q tax break for carbon capture and sequestration specifically states that enhanced oil recovery counts as sequestration means that these companies could get paid twice for the same carbon—first, via the tax break for capturing and shipping it, and again when they sell it for EOR. 

“The bottom line,” says Kuprewicz, “is if you're trying to get CO2 in the atmosphere to reduce global warming, but you've created this huge market incentive to drive and generate more oil recovery, that may be in conflict with getting rid of CO2 in the atmosphere.”