What Industry Won’t Tell You About Their Carbon Pipelines

Published Jun 23, 2023

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Climate and Energy

Federal support for carbon capture and storage has spurred a boom in carbon pipeline proposals. But safety science and regulations are lagging far behind, putting public health and safety at risk.

Federal support for carbon capture and storage has spurred a boom in carbon pipeline proposals. But safety science and regulations are lagging far behind, putting public health and safety at risk.

In early 2020, a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide ruptured in the small town of Satartia, Mississippi. The CO2 cloud displaced oxygen, stalling vehicles and leaving folks stranded, disoriented, and even unconscious. The accident sent nearly 50 people to the hospital.

The science and safety measures around carbon pipelines haven’t advanced much since Satartia. But carbon pipeline proposals are on the rise, thanks to a new wave of public funds on offer for carbon capture projects. 

Carbon capture is a failed “climate” technology, used by dirty energy companies to greenwash their operations and take advantage of public funding. It aims to suck carbon emissions from polluting industries like fossil-powered plants. Carbon pipelines would then transport CO2 for burial deep underground.

But pipeline companies aren’t ready for the huge buildout they’re planning. Neither are regulators or state and local governments. That’s why we’re joining groups across the country to call for a national moratorium on carbon pipelines. 

Here’s what you need to know.

While Companies Rush Carbon Pipelines, Regulators Follow Their Lead

The accident at Satartia called attention to the country’s lack of oversight when it comes to these pipelines. And matters may get worse.

Right now, the U.S. has about 5,000 miles of carbon pipelines. But if pipeline companies get their way, that number could balloon over the next few years.

Thanks to the Biden administration’s support for carbon capture, the country’s carbon pipeline network could grow to 65,000 miles. Already, three companies have requested to build 1,500 miles of new lines in Iowa alone.

The U.S. Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is supposed to set federal safety regulations for these pipelines. It also regulates pipelines carrying oil, gas, and other hazardous materials. 

But PHMSA’s carbon pipeline regulations are scant, and the agency likely won’t release new draft regulations until January of next year. This is especially worrying, given how fast pipeline companies are moving with projects. 

These companies would rather PHMSA set carbon pipeline regulations similar to those for oil and gas. However, researchers have found that that’s like comparing apples to oranges. For example, CO2 has different corrosion risks in steel pipelines from oil and gas. 

Nonetheless, pipeline companies want PHMSA to stick with insufficient oil and gas rules. They’re aiming to start construction before we have any comprehensive studies or regulations.

Communities Aren’t Ready for Another Accident Like Satartia

Another major concern with carbon pipelines: emergency response. The effects of a carbon pipeline rupture are like no other. 

Dense, fast-expanding CO2 displaces oxygen, and it can disorient, knock out, and even kill people before they can make it to safety. It’s also odorless and, unlike gas or oil accidents, the danger zone for carbon pipeline ruptures can be miles wide.

Moreover, because CO2 displaces oxygen, a cloud of it could stall engines and stop emergency vehicles from getting to the scene. 

This doesn’t bode well for many volunteer, resource-strapped first responder crews. These squads lack the resources for the training and equipment needed to respond to a carbon pipeline accident.

What’s more, local and state governments haven’t hashed out who is responsible for what in the event of an emergency. And while companies must report oil and gas spills to local, state, and national authorities, these requirements don’t exist for CO2 releases.

Pipeline Science Isn’t Ready for Large-Scale Buildouts

Not only do we need stronger regulations on carbon pipelines; we need more science, especially when it comes to transporting CO2 captured from polluting industries like fossil-powered electricity generation.

For example, CO2 from these sources comes with impurities that have understudied corrosion risks. Stronger steel may be better for CO2 lines. However, pipeline companies will likely lobby PHMSA to let them use the kind of steel used for natural gas lines, because it’s cheaper. 

Additionally, we need more and better dispersion modeling, which predicts how CO2 clouds would move through the air after a leak or rupture. Companies are making their own models, but they rarely share them with other scientists and regulators. 

And even the models they have aren’t great. Case in point: Denbury, the pipeline company responsible for the Satartia accident, hadn’t identified Satartia as a potentially affected area in their modeling. 

Officials can’t rely on industry suggestions or studies — they need to conduct their own studies and consult with independent researchers. 

PHMSA Meeting Leaves Us With More Questions Than Answers

Federal regulators have failed to address these concerns, despite the risk of huge health and safety problems. So for months, we joined allies to demand that PHMSA hold a public meeting on the issue. 

PHMSA finally held one last month in Des Moines, IA. They invited advocacy groups, regulators, scientists, community members, and industry representatives to participate in and present during the two-day meeting. 

Many Iowans traveled from across the state, hoping to raise their concerns. But before the public comment session, local police stopped several dozen attendees from entering the building at PHMSA’s request. 

For all the talk of a public meeting, it was clear that officials were burying their heads in the sand and didn’t want to hear from environmental justice groups. 

We Need to Stop These Pipelines

During the public meeting, a crowd member pointed out that pipeline companies in Iowa have been touting the lack of injuries from carbon pipelines. That’s because PHMSA doesn’t record injuries unless a person is hospitalized overnight. Despite the nearly 50 hospitalizations at Satartia, the official “injury” count is zero. 

This just underscores how companies are trying to blow past any opposition, while regulators play catch-up. But we’re not fooled by misleading claims and misdirections. We know carbon pipelines pose massive health and safety threats, which must be addressed before companies build any more. 

That’s why we’re calling on President Biden to place a moratorium on any new carbon pipelines until PHMSA and other agencies have done a complete analysis of the dangers and risks.

Join us virtually on July 11 to learn how you can push Biden and Congress for a carbon pipeline moratorium!

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