In March, the Pipeline Safety Trust (PST) published a report on the state of federal regulations applicable to pipelines transporting carbon dioxide (CO2). In 15 pages, the report concludes that there will be a “tsunami” of new CO2 pipelines that pose a new and unique risk to the public, suggesting our government is ill-equipped.
But first, let’s back up. PST is an activist group based in Bellingham, Washington. Their stated mission is to provide educational resources on pipeline safety so the public is better informed and able to play an active role in “pipeline decision-making.”
While we at the Capture Action (CAP) Project are all for providing information, it’s worth pointing out that the PST website’s section on CO2 pipelines is titled, “Carbon Dioxide Pipelines: Dangerous and Under-Regulated.” So, it stands to reason there’s an agenda behind the “educational resources” that goes beyond offering up just the facts.
In fact, the Consumer Energy Alliance said just that when it issued a press release on the PST report, noting that it was partially funded by Bold Alliance, an environmental organization that describes its mission as “fighting pipelines”, receives funding from foundations linked to George Soros, and is most famous for opposing Keystone XL.
With that in mind, let’s provide some quick context before we dig into this report. CO2 pipelines are an important component of carbon capture projects. They facilitate the transport of CO2 from the site where it’s captured to the site where it will be stored or re-purposed. To-date, there about 5,150 miles of existing CO2 pipelines operating in the U.S.
The PST report makes three overarching arguments, so let’s take them by one by one:
- CO2 pipelines put the public at risk
It’s important to remember that CO2 doesn’t harm our land or water; it’s a vital part of our environment. In fact, humans wouldn’t be able to breathe without it. Critics of CO2 pipelines often like to remind the public that carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant in high concentrations. That’s true, but it’s probably worth reminding everyone that so, too, is methane, also widely – and safely – transported by pipe.
All told, pipelines are the safest mode of transport available. Compared to rail or truck, pipelines result in fewer spills and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The truth is that CO2 pipelines have an excellent safety record. To put their record in context, 99.999% of oil transported via pipelines reaches its destination without incident. And in the last 12 years, carbon dioxide pipelines have had less than half the reported incidents of oil pipelines and caused zero fatalities.
- There is insufficient federal regulation of CO2 pipelines
CO2 pipelines traveling across state lines within the U.S. are regulated by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
As it stands today, PHMSA oversees pipelines that are transporting carbon dioxide in a “supercritical liquid state,” or a concentration of at least 90% carbon dioxide, which the agency notes is “the majority of carbon dioxide transported.” Even further, the agency is currently considering revisions to its regulations that would expand its jurisdiction to include pipelines carrying concentrations of carbon dioxides under 90%, as well as carbon dioxide in a gaseous form.
In the meantime, it’s worth underscoring that CO2 pipeline projects are working in close coordination with federal regulators – pipeline operators work within PHMSA guidelines and PHMSA regulators are firm in the conviction that they have sufficient authority to do so now.
Finally, CO2 pipelines are also heavily regulated by the states, many of which has its own stringent standards.
- There will be a “boom” in CO2 pipelines due to anticipated carbon capture projects that our federal government isn’t prepared for
There may well be an increase in the number of operating CO2 pipelines in coming years. From the point of view of our environment, that’s a net positive because it means there’s a higher demand for captured carbon and industries are taking tangible steps to reduce their emissions. So, let’s hope so.
But even the most casual observers of energy have probably caught on that it’s not easy to permit and construct a pipeline these days. The process is a slow, laborious one, and even if the rate does grow – and spur PHMSA to expand its regulatory presence – the idea that federal regulators are going to be caught in a “tsunami” of pipelines they can’t begin to navigate is a ridiculous one.
There is a reasonable argument to be found somewhere in the PST report – it may well be time for updated federal regulations of CO2 pipelines. Unfortunately, it’s buried beneath unnecessary hyperbole and scare tactics that aren’t reflective of reality.
Here’s the thing: if and when those federal regulations are formally expanded, groups like PST and Bold Alliance aren’t going to get on board because they are fundamentally opposed to all pipelines and carbon capture technologies. And while everyone is welcome to their opinion, they aren’t welcome to promote misinformation.