CO2 Pipelines Are Coming; a Pipeline Safety Expert Says We’re Not Ready

Companies want to build pipelines to capture and store carbon, but a new report warns that regulators aren’t prepared.

Source: Larry Lee/Getty Images

A year ago, a different kind of pipeline project was announced in the Midwest. Most pipelines pick up oil or gas from a well and deliver it to customers who burn it, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This one would run almost in reverse. A company called Summit Climate Solutions planned to capture carbon dioxide from ethanol refineries in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and then transport it via the proposed pipeline to a site in North Dakota where the CO2 would be buried deep underground.

In the months since, two more companies have proposed similar CO2 pipeline projects in the Midwest, and another wants to expand an existing pipeline in the South. The sudden boom is being driven by federal and state incentives for carbon capture and storage (CCS), as well as a new low-interest loan program for CO2 pipelines passed by Congress last year and general support from the Biden administration to grow the “carbon management” industry in an effort to reduce carbon emissions.

But as the number of pipeline proposals multiplies, a new report commissioned by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, warns that CO2 pipeline regulations aren’t up to the task of keeping communities safe.

“The country is ill prepared for the increase of CO2 pipeline mileage being driven by federal CCS policy,” writes report author Richard Kuprewicz, an independent pipeline safety consultant hired by the Pipeline Safety Trust. “Federal pipeline safety regulations need to be quickly changed to rise to this new challenge and to assure that the public has confidence in the federal pipeline safety regulations.”

Pipeline safety is overseen by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a subdivision of the US Department of Transportation. The agency began regulating carbon dioxide pipelines in 1991. Today, there are just over 5,000 miles of CO2 pipelines in the US, most of which deliver CO2 to oil fields, where companies pump it underground to stimulate oil production. But researchers assert that capturing carbon dioxide from industrial facilities and sucking CO2 directly from the air will be essential tools to tackle climate change. In order to deliver that CO2 to sites where it can be permanently sequestered underground, they estimate the US could need between 30,000 and 65,000 miles of pipeline.

The most concerning finding in the new report, according to Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, is that regulations for assessing the potential impacts of a CO2 pipeline rupture were not developed specifically for CO2. Every pipeline developer has to identify potential “high-consequence areas” where an accidental release would have significant negative impacts on human health or the environment. High-consequence areas for oil and gas pipelines are well defined, but the report notes that CO2 has different considerations and likely a much larger radius of concern. CO2 is heavier than air, and a plume of CO2 can travel for miles, depending on wind and terrain, and settle into low-lying areas. The report warns that such an event would be difficult for people in the vicinity and first responders to detect because CO2 is colorless, odorless, and nonflammable.

“If I had to pick one finding of the report that would keep me up at night as a public safety advocate, it’s that one,” Caram said.

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