Prove your humanity

The federal infrastructure bill has spurred new interest in carbon capture and storage as a way to reduce climate polluting emissions from the air and send them underground.

Bill Caram, the executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, says there was also an expansion of existing tax credits for carbon capture to decarbonize parts of the economy. But his group has concerns about the current regulation of pipelines that carry carbon dioxide, and the many more CO2 pipelines that would be needed to fulfill some of these visions of the future.

Pipeline Safety Trust recently commissioned a report to assess the state of CO2 pipeline safety regulation, and The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Caram about it.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: About how many CO2 pipelines are there in the U.S. now and what are they used for mostly? 

Bill Caram: Currently, there are about 5,000 miles of CO2 pipelines, and they’re used almost entirely for what’s called enhanced oil recovery, where some older oil and gas wells will inject CO2 down into the well in order to get the last bits of oil and gas out of a well. Generally, right now, the CO2 pipelines will take CO2 from a single source and move it to a single oil field for injection. 

Holsopple: New CO2 pipelines are being proposed to facilitate carbon capture and storage to reduce carbon emissions for industries like ethanol refineries in the Midwest or making hydrogen in the future. How are or will these CO2 pipelines be different from existing ones? 

Caram: These will be more similar to our existing oil and gas infrastructure, where you have trunk lines and spur lines coming from multiple sources feeding into each other, leading to one of these sequestration sites. 

Holsopple: What are some of the known safety risks of CO2 pipelines? 

Caram: This really came on the radar in the ’80s when there was a natural release from a lake in Cameroon, in Africa. That was a volcanic event and it led to a massive amount of CO2 coming out of this lake. Because CO2 is heavier than air and is an asphyxiant, it displaces oxygen and basically can suffocate people. That CO2 spread out from the lake and it killed every oxygen-breathing living thing within an eight-mile radius or something like that. Almost 1,700 people died. That was the first time that it really got on people’s radar. 

“A rupture of a CO2 pipeline…sickened 200 people. It sent nearly 50 to the hospital.”

Congress mandated that the pipeline regulator, PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration], which is part of the Department of Transportation, needed to start regulating CO2 pipelines because there was this small amount of mileage in the U.S. and they didn’t want something like that happening here.

So PHMSA did adopt for the first time some regulations on CO2 pipelines, but it was basically an add-on to existing oil and gas pipelines, not addressing some of the unique risks that CO2 can pose, that oil and gas pipelines maybe don’t.

Then we had in 2020, in Satartia, Mississippi, a rupture of a CO2 pipeline and it sickened 200 people. It sent nearly 50 to the hospital, and that was in a pretty rural area. That really brought it back to people’s attention that these pipelines do pose some significant and unique safety risks, and that’s really what led us to produce this paper. 

Holsopple: People can be asphyxiated, as you said, but it also has some implications for vehicles and for first responders, too, right? 

Caram: That’s right. In this Mississippi incident, really, no one knew that this pipeline was there. The first responders, I mean, were true heroes. I still cannot believe that they were able to adapt their procedures so quickly and rescue people.

They figured out their vehicles weren’t running because there wasn’t oxygen to run an internal combustion engine. They figured out that they needed to put on scuba gear and they ran into this plume of CO2 to rescue people and pull them out. 

Kara Holsopple: You mentioned that PHMSA, the government agency that regulates pipelines, has some regulations for CO2. Can you say a little bit more about that? 

Bill Caram: PHMSA took a very narrow, limited approach in how they were going to regulate CO2. At the time, again, there wasn’t a lot of mileage. They were in very remote areas, in oil and gas heavy areas. So maybe that was appropriate at the time.

But if we are talking about doing this nationwide buildout to really address carbon emissions, the amount of mileage that’s going to be needed for that is really going to crisscross the whole country. We need to take a new approach to look at safety.

“If CO2 is moved as a gas or as a liquid…it is not regulated currently by PHMSA.”

PHMSA really needs to broaden its regulations on CO2. One thing that they do is they have this very narrow definition of what CO2 even is when it falls under their regulation, and that’s when it’s transported as a supercritical fluid.

For enhanced oil recovery, almost all CO2 is transported as the supercritical fluid. It’s a distinct state of CO2, kind of between a gas and a liquid, and it’s at very high pressure.

So if CO2 is moved as a gas or as a liquid, for example, it is not regulated currently by PHMSA. Carbon capture and sequestration is a whole different deal from enhanced oil recovery. PHMSA really needs to expand its definition of CO2. 

Also, there are no regulations right now as to impurities in the line. There are a couple of very common impurities in CO2 pipelines that can be very corrosive, not to mention toxic to people. We would love to see PHMSA adopt some standards as to limits on those impurities in the lines.

Something as simple as water in a CO2 pipeline can form carbonic acid, which is extremely corrosive to steel pipelines and can lead to ruptures. Once it’s in a line, it’s notoriously difficult to fully remove.

We would love to see PHMSA adopt some regulations on something as simple as water in the line. But other things too, like hydrogen sulfide, are extremely toxic to people in very small amounts and also corrosive to the pipeline and can be common in CO2 pipelines. 

Kara Holsopple: What are some of your other recommendations for regulatory changes to address the risks of CO2 pipelines? 

Bill Caram: One of the biggest that came out of this report, and as a public safety advocate, it’s one of my biggest concerns, is the way that operators identify the potential impact to areas in case of a failure of their pipeline.

So take a natural gas pipeline, for example. Determining the potential impact area, and that means the radius around a pipeline or the distance from the pipeline where somebody could be injured or killed. For a natural gas pipeline, that’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

“There is no federal agency that oversees the siting of these pipelines”

The diameter of the pipe, the pressure of the gas in the pipe, if it were to fail and explode, you can figure out, okay, if anybody’s within 1,000 feet of that pipe, they have the potential to be burned or killed.

With a CO2 pipeline, because it is heavier than air, because it doesn’t ignite, depending on the terrain and the weather at the time of the failure, it can travel much longer distances. These potential impact areas could be measured in miles and not feet. It’s not a simple calculation. It requires some sophisticated modeling. Really, no one model is going to give you the answer in every case. We need to figure out the best way to determine these potential impact areas so that we can keep people safe. 

Kara Holsopple: I also read something about adding an odor. CO2 is odorless. 

Bill Caram: That would be something that should be pretty straightforward. Immediately after a failure, dry ice crystals can form in the air and you can see a cloud. But once it warms, those melt and it then becomes invisible as well.

So adding an odor – and a lot of people don’t realize this, but odor is added to our natural gas lines and that’s how we can often know when there’s a natural gas leak. We smell it. So we would love to see something similar for the CO2 lines added. 

Kara Holsopple: So PHMSA oversees the regulation of the operation of these pipelines. Which agency decides where they’re sited? 

Bill Caram: That’s a great question, and unfortunately, there’s not a great answer for it. There is no federal agency that oversees the siting of these pipelines. We believe there are a couple of agencies that would have the authority to do it should they choose to use it, like the Surface Transportation Board.

But there are no federal agencies currently taking that authority. So it really comes down to state and local authorities approving permits through their areas of jurisdiction. That’s pretty scary, and we would love to see a federal agency step up and take on that authority. 

A spokesperson for PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said it is working on new measures to strengthen safety standards for CO2 pipelines as envisioned in a White House guidance on the subject that was issued in February, and that PHMSA is also reviewing the findings in the report commissioned by Pipeline Safety Trust.