A carbon dioxide pipeline break in 2020 in Mississippi sickened dozens. (Photo courtesy of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration)
President Joe Biden should prevent the construction of new carbon dioxide pipelines until changes to federal rules are adopted to increase their safety, opponents of the projects said Thursday.
The call for an executive order to stall the projects comes as federal regulators consider changes to pipeline requirements and are set to hold a two-day meeting in Des Moines next week to discuss their safety and gain public feedback.
Biden has little say over whether Iowa regulators issue hazardous liquid pipeline permits to the three companies who currently seek them. Approval from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates the pipelines from a safety perspective, is not required by Iowa Utilities Board’s permit process, said Don Tormey, an IUB spokesperson.
However, pipeline opponents said Biden could potentially block their construction on federal lands and across certain waterways.
“President Biden has the power to put a halt to the carbon capture scam by issuing an executive order and directing federal agencies to restrict permits for projects until regulatory safeguards are in place,” said Jim Walsh, policy director for Food & Water Watch.
That group and others have for months sought to halt the state permitting processes while PHMSA considers changes to its safety requirements in light of a carbon dioxide pipeline rupture in Mississippi that sickened 45 people in 2020.
“We are talking about a hazardous material that can cause rapid health effects over a very short period of time,” said Ted Schettler, science director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, who warned that there aren’t adequate regulations of the pipelines.
A confluence of factors
The pipeline rupture in Satartia, Mississippi, has been a rallying cry for those who oppose carbon dioxide pipelines. They object to the projects because of the generous federal tax incentives for capturing the greenhouse gas from ethanol plants and other emitters, the potential for the pipelines to prolong the use of fossil fuels for energy, and for what they see as the erosion of property rights for landowners who lie in the pipeline paths.
There’s also the issue of public safety. A PHMSA review of the Satartia incident found that operator Denbury Gulf Coast Pipelines failed to anticipate threats to the integrity of its pipeline, underestimated the areas that could be affected by a breach, and failed to notify local officials of a safety hazard.
Jesse Harris, director of public affairs for Summit Carbon Solutions, which seeks to build one of the pipelines in Iowa, said the company learned from Denbury’s mistakes and incorporated that into its design and operations plans. He noted that the company was found by federal regulators to be in “non-compliance with multiple existing regulations.”
A PHMSA report also noted: “The weather conditions and unique topography of the accident site prevented the CO2 vapor from rapidly dispersing and allowing a plume to form that migrated toward Satartia.”
That is not typical, a PHMSA administrator told state lawmakers this year. The administrator noted about 100 unintentional carbon dioxide releases from pipelines in the past two decades — all of them smaller than the Mississippi release — and one resulting injury.
“What the normal situation is: you have a release of carbon dioxide, you’ve got warm air and it goes up in the air,” said Linda Daugherty, the administrator. “There’s already CO2 in the atmosphere. It just goes up. There’s wind, and it’ll mix it up and disperse it.”
But the potential for another confluence of factors that mimic the Mississippi situation means that the pipelines need more robust safety requirements, pipeline opponents argue.
“There’s no requirement to add an odorant into the pipeline so that the public could know that there is a dangerous level of CO2 that could be asphyxiating them,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust. “We need better regulations to identify the communities that could be impacted in the case of a pipeline failure. Notably, Satartia was not identified by the operator Denbury as being potentially impacted by the failure.”
The Satartia rupture was preceded by heavy rains that caused a landslide around a section of pipe, but Caram said more should be done to reduce subtle, longer-term threats to the integrity of the pipelines.
One of those threats is corrosion that is caused by contaminants. Navigator CO2 Ventures, one of the three companies that proposes a pipeline in Iowa, has said ethanol plants are an ideal source of carbon dioxide because their emissions have reduced contaminants.
“But when we start looking at capturing CO2 from power plants and things like that, there will be more water and other impurities that pose both public health risks and pipeline integrity risks to these pipelines,” Caram said.
A PHMSA draft of the new proposed rules is expected early next year.
The agency’s “CO2 Public Meeting 2023” is set to be held May 31 and June 1 in Des Moines.
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