The Biden administration’s new rulemaking for carbon dioxide pipeline safety, and a nearly $4 million fine for a 2020 pipeline rupture, are seen as a step toward carbon capture goals that envision building out thousands of miles of pipelines, industry watchers said Friday.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s measures arrived on Thursday with a long-awaited investigative report into Plano, Texas-based Denbury Inc.'s pipeline rupture that hospitalized at least 45 people in Satartia, Miss.
The incident prompted national alarm about the safety of carbon pipelines and emergency response readiness as the Energy Department aims to spend billions on carbon technology as a way to meet mid-century climate goals.
“The pipeline network needs to expand in order to address our climate needs, but it has to be done safely,” said John Thompson, technology and markets director at the Clean Air Task Force.
“To address the most pressing climate issues, we’ll need carbon capture, and that will imply some pipelines—and as the pipeline network grows, we have to double down on safety,” Thompson said. “I think this is a start.”
Climate advocacy groups are divided on the role of carbon capture in reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Proponents, led by the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, say the technology is essential to decarbonizing heavy industry in the near future. Opponents, including environmental justice groups that have advised the White House, argue the technology locks in polluting fossil fuel infrastructure.
Roughly 5,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines exist today, mostly moving carbon dioxide to enhance oil drilling operations. The administration envisions a network of pipelines that connect to permanent geologic storage sites, such as in the Gulf of Mexico and Upper Midwest.
A December 2020 Princeton University study projected 65,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines by 2050. Several major carbon pipeline projects have been proposed for the Midwest, generating local opposition.
“There’s a tremendous amount of unfamiliarity with CO2,” said Charles McConnell, director of the Center for Carbon Management in Energy and Sustainability at the University of Houston. “And, as part of the energy transition and broad deployment of CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage), it’s part of everybody’s future.”
PHMSA should work with industry to address safety concerns and local officials to develop emergency response plans, said McConnell, who led the Energy Department’s fossil energy office from 2011 to 2013.
Turning Failures Into Rules
Entering the carbon pipeline fray this week, the pipeline agency proposed its largest-ever fine for a host of probable violations committed by Denbury.
The agency found a landslide was to blame for the rupture. It also listed probable violations including: a failure to quickly notify the National Response Center; a failure to conduct routine inspections of its rights-of-way; and the absence of written procedures for conducting normal operations and emergency response.
Details of the agency’s new rulemaking were unavailable on Friday, and a PHMSA spokesperson did not have an estimate for when it will be public.
“The safety of the American people is paramount, and we’re taking action to strengthen CO2 pipeline safety standards to better protect communities, our first responders, and our environment,” Tristan Brown, the agency’s deputy administrator, said in a statement.
The Energy Department will incorporate PHMSA’s guidance into its portfolio of carbon capture projects, it said in a statement. It has $2.1 billion to finance carbon dioxide transportation captured from industrial facilities, power plants, and future direct air capture facilities to permanent geologic storage sites.
“The advancement of essential CO2 transport infrastructure and carbon management technologies will be required” to meet climate goals, the department said.
Seeking Public Confidence
The agency’s actions so far strike the right balance between addressing concerns and allowing the technology to grow, carbon capture advocates said in statements and interviews.
In order to scale up the infrastructure, “there must be full public and policymaker confidence in CO2 pipeline safety,” said Jessie Stolark, public policy and member relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition.
Carbon pipelines have an “excellent safety record overall—one that easily surpasses other climate-essential energy infrastructure, such as electric transmission and distribution systems,” Stolark said.
The energy industry is working to address land-shifting events and “geohazards” on pipelines carrying a variety of substances.
“Pipeline operators have an initiative to address the challenges associated with geohazards across all pipeline operations, including CO2 pipelines,” said Robin Rorick, vice president of midstream policy for the American Petroleum Institute. “We stand committed to ensuring safe operations in coordination with PHMSA.”
The Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group skeptical of carbon pipelines, has called for the agency to take broad action.
“The list of proposed new CO2 pipeline projects seems to grow every week, which makes it all the more important to modernize our safety regulations immediately,” Bill Caram, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “It is encouraging that PHMSA recognizes the risks and regulatory gaps and is taking steps to protect our communities.”