Carbon capture and storage may finally be gaining traction as a way for power plants, natural gas terminals and industrial facilities to lower their emissions.
But environmental justice advocates worry that it will become a lifeline for fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world — one that comes at an unacceptable cost to the communities that have long suffered from the polluting facilities built next door.
“It blocks communities suffering for decades with toxic pollution from being able to find a transition from that,” said Monique Harden, assistant director for public policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) in New Orleans. “Which would mean that those toxic emissions would continue, and CCS would serve as fig leaf cover justifying that continued pollution.”
CCS has gone through years of false starts and abandoned investments. But this summer could be a turning point, thanks to a new climate law brimming with tax incentives for the technology. A Supreme Court decision curtailing EPA’s regulatory options — and nudging the administration to shift focus to on-site emission reductions — could further set the stage for CCS to be deployed more broadly.
That makes environmental justice advocates wary. Not only could the application of CCS delay retirement of dirty infrastructure, they say, but it could lead to a boom in pipelines, which have historically been routed through poor and minority communities.
“Pipelines are environmentally racist in the Gulf South,” said Naomi Yoder, a member of the science team at Healthy Gulf in New Orleans, which with DSCEJ is opposing the introduction of liquefied natural gas terminals with CCS in the Gulf of Mexico. “Pipelines have always been, and continue to be, sited and located disproportionately in communities with lower income and higher minority populations, and higher Indigenous populations.”
Last year, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council released a report listing CCS among the technologies that “will not benefit” disadvantaged communities. The council recommended that the Biden administration exclude CCS projects from counting toward its Justice40 Initiative — which promises that disadvantaged communities will see 40 percent of the programmatic benefits from climate and clean energy spending.
The Biden administration nonetheless announced earlier this summer that two Energy Department CCS demonstration programs had been counted toward the initiative’s 40 percent goal.
“DOE is committed to ensuring these projects adhere to all the principles of the Justice40 Initiative, will maximize the benefits to frontline communities, and identify and address the potential harms to communities that may result from DOE-funded projects,” DOE spokesperson Ramzey Smith said in an email to E&E News.
Reconciling CCS with EJ concerns
While the environmental justice movement is almost unanimous in its opposition to CCS, some climate advocates say the technology is important — or even indispensable — as a tool for avoiding climate catastrophe.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assumes a large deployment of CCS for heavy industry and power in its modeling to show how the world could still keep warming to 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius. Scientists say a failure to keep to those temperature thresholds — as enshrined in the Paris Agreement — would usher in a host of climate-driven dangers, from sea-level rise to extreme heat to drought.
Those impacts would fall heaviest on the most vulnerable populations around the world.
Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at CO2 removal company Carbon Direct, said the IPCC’s findings “strongly recommend increasing funds and financing of CCS to meet climate goals and achieve a just transition.”
CCS deployment, he said, can also reduce local pollution.
“The science is unambiguous: CCS provides swift and profound greenhouse gas abatement,” said Friedmann, who was a senior official in DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy during the Obama administration.
The Biden administration and Congress have made CCS a cornerstone of climate policy. The Inflation Reduction Act could lead to the sequestration of as much as 200 million tons of CO2 annually by 2030 when combined with investments already made under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, according to recent modeling by the Princeton ZERO Lab’s REPEAT project.
The White House has attempted to reconcile its support for CCS with the concerns raised by environmental justice advocates. Earlier this year, the Council on Environmental Quality released guidance that recommends consultation and other steps for CCS projects to avoid “the imposition of additional burdens on overburdened and underserved communities” (Energywire, Feb. 16).
But DSCEJ’s Harden said EPA and other agencies haven’t shown communities that CCS is safe. Consultations, she said, are not enough; they shift too much of the burden of avoiding harm, and assessing risk, to community members.
That could put neighborhoods near facilities with CCS in the same boat, she said, as hydraulic fracturing communities or Black Louisianans impacted by “Cancer Alley” — a concentration of petrochemical facilities in minority neighborhoods that has had disastrous public health consequences.
“I’ve been doing this work since 1995,” said Harden. “And getting into this work in the early days meant attending public hearings where you have maybe a retired school teacher who lives in the community, a person with a florist shop … maybe someone who works an insurance office. And they’re coming forward in the Department of Environmental Quality hearings to talk about the dangers of polyethylene, or benzene or xylene.
“They’re not chemists, right? But they had to learn this the hard way, because the pain of being exposed to it and the harm that is done to their families and their children,” she said.
Will CCS increase smog and soot?
As an example of a lack of government due diligence, Harden pointed to her group’s fight against the Hackberry Carbon Sequestration project in southwest Louisiana.
The proposed project by Sempra Infrastructure and partners would capture and store carbon from the Cameron LNG export project and other sources. DSCEJ and Healthy Gulf filed a Freedom of Information Act request with EPA that asked for any sampling or testing the agency had conducted to ensure that harmful chemicals didn’t end up in the CO2 stream.
In its response, EPA said it had no records of any such testing, but would make them available if the public supplied them.
Harden and Yoder have raised a variety of concerns about the safety of transporting and sequestering CO2, and argue that CCS would do little to nothing to limit non-CO2 pollutants that compromise public health near a facility.
But technical experts who specialize in CCS and its components say many of those concerns are unfounded.
First and foremost, CCS is a cost to fossil fuels operators, not a benefit, said Susan Hovorka, a senior research scientist at the Gulf Coast Carbon Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She likened it to a tax on cigarettes.
“Since Earth Day, people who are concerned about the environment have been pushing alternatives — wind, solar. And they think that CCS is in conflict with that, but that’s not actually true,” she said. “Often fossil is the lowest cost and easiest thing to do. So, if CCS would raise the cost of fossil, it makes nonfossil more competitive.”
Environmental justice advocates argue that, while CCS might curtail how much a power plant or LNG facility damages the climate, it does little to abate the smog and soot that wafts into local communities. In fact, they say, it could make the problem worse: Carbon capture siphons off some of a power plant’s generation, meaning the same output might require the combustion of more fossil fuels and thus lead to more criteria pollutants.
But John Thompson, who directs the Clean Air Task Force’s Coal Transition Project, said that wasn’t true.
“What that omits is that the amines used in carbon capture are extremely sensitive to air pollution — the conventional air pollution that is associated with premature mortality,” he said, pointing to sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and some forms of nitrogen oxides. “These things that harm human health disrupt the chemistry of carbon capture, and it has to be removed.”
In other words, operating amine-gas-based carbon capture leads to much lower levels of criteria pollutants, either because the treatment itself eliminates them or because the operator must remove them to protect the equipment.
There are more than 5,000 miles of CO2 pipelines in the United States, with the first ones laid decades ago.
In 2020, the country had its first major CO2 pipeline rupture in Satartia, Miss. A pipeline owned by Denbury Inc. ruptured after a landslide, spilling gas into the neighboring community and sending almost 50 people to the hospital.
The pipeline wasn’t related to CCS. The CO2 was being transported from Jackson Dome, a natural carbon source in Mississippi, to be used for enhanced oil recovery, which uses CO2 to boost production in depleted oil fields.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s report on the incident, released earlier this year, includes first-hand witness accounts that refer to a rotten egg smell. That indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide, an extremely hazardous gas that can be lethal in small quantities.
That’s not a risk associated with CCS, Thompson said, because the equipment is sensitive to the presence of such contaminants.
“These contaminants degrade the amine and impair its operation, even at very low levels,” he said. “That’s why pretreatment steps must often be added to a plant to install carbon capture.”
But exposure to CO2 in large quantities in unventilated spaces can act as an asphyxiant. Hovorka, the University of Texas researcher, noted that people have died in wine vats overcome by CO2 from the fermentation.
DSCEJ’s Harden also raised concerns that pipelines containing CO2 might be more prone to rupture than pipelines carrying other products because CO2 is corrosive and would erode the pipeline material.
Hovorka said CO2 is only corrosive if it’s mixed with water, which results in a weak acid like that found in beer or seltzer water. That can damage pipelines, meaning that pipelines must keep CO2 away from water or be reinforced with stainless steel or another material to prevent corrosion.
‘Invisibility means injustice’
Harden also raised concerns about seismic activity related to the storage of CO2 underground. She pointed to Oklahoma, where wastewater injection from fracking has caused man-made earthquakes.
In the Gulf Coast — where the Hackberry Carbon Sequestration project is proposed — that wouldn’t be a concern, according to Hovorka. Gulf Coast sediments don’t store potential energy that would make disruptive levels of seismic activity possible.
But the risk might be different elsewhere in the country, she said. Pipeline construction also could damage wetlands that insulate the Gulf Coast from major storms, according to both Healthy Gulf’s Yoder and Hovorka.
Paty Ortega Mitchell, a spokesperson for Sempra, which has proposed the Hackberry project, said the company plans to build CO2 pipelines alongside existing pipelines to minimize the impact on neighboring communities.
“The CO2 that would otherwise be emitted will be captured and transported so it can be injected for permanent sequestration approximately 8,000 feet under the surface of the earth,” she said, adding that the proposed injection site is undeveloped and uninhabited. Hackberry, the nearest town, is about 5 miles away from the proposed sequestration well.
The proliferation of CO2 pipelines won’t come at zero risk, Hovorka said. But the risks will be manageable, she said, and significantly less than those posed now by natural gas pipelines, which carry a flammable product and have caused explosions and deaths. Power lines, she said, carry more health risks and safety hazards.
“CO2 hazards are not special,” she said. “Someone sometime will die related to a CO2 pipeline, and it will be someone who’s sleeping in a basement. It hasn’t happened yet, but if we get more and more of them, there will be deaths. But there will be fewer deaths than from power lines.”
Harden said that shouldn’t be the standard.
“From folks who are already on board with this, the risks are just dismissed without being identified and assessed and explained,” she said. “It’s more than just the silence, it’s the dismissal. And the kind of work I do is all about not making this stuff invisible. Invisibility means injustice, it means people get harmed.”