The costs of Big Oil’s climate “solution”
We spoke with Dan Zegart, whose investigative reporting on a CO2 pipeline rupture in Mississippi provides a window into the uncertain future of carbon capture and sequestration.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Hurricane Ida devastated the Louisiana coast this week, leaving more than a million residents and businesses without power and forcing many to abandon their homes on the 16-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The damage was forecast to reach $80 billion — and that was before it traveled all the way to the Northeast, causing deadly flash floods in New York City, where I live, last night:
In the backdrop of these now-regular hellscapes Big Oil continues to fuel and mounting pressure for governments to address the problem, the world’s biggest polluters are scrambling for solutions that won’t pose a threat to their fossil fuel business. Carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) — a web of technologies that work to prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere — has been their best-received, a supposed silver bullet that will save both the oil and gas industry and the future of humanity.
CCS is foundational to oil giants’ (problematic) net-zero emissions plans, and they’re not alone. President Biden’s net-zero by 2050 strategy relies on carbon capture. Members of Congress from both parties are pushing for better tax credits to encourage investment in CCS, with support from Big Oil companies like Exxon, which is also asking taxpayers to front experiments like a $100 billion carbon capture project in Houston. Nations across the world are hinging their emissions plans on a rapid, large-scale buildout of the expensive and still largely mysterious technology. In the U.S., that would mean building a network of CO2 pipelines potentially multiple times the size of existing oil and gas pipeline infrastructure.
What could go wrong?
That’s a question for Dan Zegart, senior investigator at the Climate Investigations Center, whose in-depth reporting on the first known outdoor mass exposure to piped CO2 was published in HuffPost last week. The story begins last February, when a CO2 pipeline leaked in Satartia, a small Mississippi town, forcing hundreds of people to flee for their lives, and sending almost 50 residents to the hospital, many with lingering medical conditions and no definite path to justice. At high concentrations, CO2 — an asphyxiant — can cause unconsciousness, coma, and even death.
I spoke with Zegart last week about the possible implications of CCS for public health, public funds, and the climate if things go according to (the lack of) plan. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
EK: How unusual should we expect a CO2 pipeline leak like this to be? What protocols exist to ensure that residents are protected if it happens again?
DZ: I could not overemphasize the degree to which there is ignorance about virtually every aspect of the CO2 pipelines, how the gas behaves, what happens in the event of a leak, and so on. As a hazardous industrial product, it’s received very little attention or scrutiny. You are dealing with sort of a black box, compared to much better understood natural gas and oil pipelines. That’s not a good thing if you think about building a huge network of these pipelines over a very short period of time.
If you look at it on an incidence per mile basis, these are no more safe than natural gas pipelines, which we know rupture and leak and explode on a very regular basis. All one has to do is look at the federal government’s own data on this. Any claims for safety that are made for CO2 pipelines are in effect more dubious than similar claims made for other pipelines because we simply don’t have the knowledge.
There are very few protocols of any kind that I know of around CO2 pipelines in terms of how or whether to evacuate people, what to do with people who’ve inhaled it. I had to talk to emergency room doctors and find the little bits that were published about CO2 to understand what had happened to these folks. These pipelines operate under very high pressures, so when there is a rupture, the gas leaks out much more quickly in a much more concentrated form. The hazards range from inhaling it to having contact with the almost frozen material as it comes out of the pipeline.
This is a very nasty product — it’s not what people think of when they think of carbon dioxide as the fizzy bubbles in your root beer.
EK: In the piece you describe how many different interests are pushing CCS right now. Why is everyone so committed to the idea of CCS?
DZ: It’s a tide that would float many boats, conceivably — although I’m not so sure how many boats would in fact be floated, other than the petroleum industry. Yes, labor would get to build many miles of pipeline, but those jobs are short-term jobs. Oil and gas are really at the heart of it.
Before the oil and gas industry embraced this in the last ten or so years, it was a very limited constituency talking about carbon capture and sequestration. Now the pressures on these companies have built up to the point where they are clamoring for a solution — and this is the one that allows, theoretically, for the industry to pretty much continue business as usual as long as they can bury what is in essence their waste, their garbage. We’re asking the governments of the world to subsidize the waste stream for the oil and gas and coal industries. And there’s absolutely no reason why taxpayers should be doing that.
EK: What role would pipelines play in bringing carbon capture sequestration technology to scale? What would need to happen for CCS to sufficiently reduce emissions in accordance with the IPCC’s latest findings?
DZ: There are estimates of everything from 65,000 miles to two or even multiple times the length of the current petroleum infrastructure, which is simply unimaginable. Lee Raymond, longtime CEO and president of ExxonMobil during some of its biggest growth years, said that this is simply not possible to do. Raymond said that the social cost, the regulatory difficulties, and so on, to make or build a big enough pipeline system to actually handle the CO2 that’s being produced, is simply not within human scale to accomplish. As he put it, the cost would be “very, very significant.” The answer of course is many billions in government money.
There are a number of other considerations too: How do you route these pipelines? If you route them through traditional corridors where there’s already existing petroleum infrastructure, you further disempower and pollute the fenceline communities that exist already in those cancer alleys. You have the environmental justice concerns of millions of people who are already under the heavy boot of the petroleum industry. It's simply socially unacceptable and I think financially impossible to build such a network.
We’re talking about getting most of this built by 2050. Remember how expensive this process is going to be to build these pipelines, and you have to anticipate that companies will do everything they can to minimize that expense. It’s inconceivable that this could be a strategy that you could rely on, as the IPCC seems to be intending, to save us as sort of a magic bullet.
EK: What’s going on in Satartia now? Is there any indication of whether and how the company responsible will be held accountable for this event?
DZ: Satartia goes along in its own rhythm in many ways. It’s a very small town, people are very close-knit. The people there really love their lives, they love their community, they love the outdoors in Mississippi. And they’re a very resilient people. In spite of the fact that this has happened, people have picked up and gone on, and are hoping for some kind of justice at the end of the day from the company that did this.
It’s very expensive to file lawsuits. They’re hoping that the government’s report will come out soon, but no one knows whether there’s actually going to be any real settling of this with the company, any real justice, because there really is no regulatory authority. This is another thing that Lee Raymond pointed out all those years ago: there’s no regulatory authority that oversees CO2 pipelines with any degree of thoroughness. In any toxic event, there frequently is no real payoff to compensate people who are sick. You have a steep asymmetry between the folks that have been screwed and the folks that are making the money and have moved on.
We really don’t know what will happen for folks down there. That’s one of the reasons I thought the story was important to tell.
PS: EXXONKNEWS will be taking a break next week for Labor Day, but will be back the week after with more climate accountability updates. Until then, have a safe and happy week!
ICYMI News Roundup