The Oil Industry’s New Climate Change Solution Is More Pipelines

Fossil fuel companies and their executives are banking on carbon capture as a boon for the green economy. Environmentalists say this is a climate myth.
August 2, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: plus49/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Two controversial new projects propose laying thousands of miles of pipe through America’s Corn Belt, carrying liquid carbon dioxide across five states, from Iowa to the Dakotas, where they’d wind through prairies, piercing waterways and twisting around farm land. 

For residents of the rural Midwest, this sight would be nothing new; the region is already home to a network of crude and refined oil and gas pipelines. But these tubes wouldn’t be carrying oil and gas recently drilled from the ground; they would move it in the opposite direction. The miles of steel cylinder would transport carbon dioxide that’s been sucked from industrial facilities into storage, where it would be reused for oil drilling or pumped back into the earth.

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This is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—the process of removing carbon dioxide from industrial sources before it has the chance to enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. And it’s the latest project proposed by the oil and gas industry to garner controversy for its dubious efficacy and unknown risks. 

Navigator CO2 Ventures and Summit Carbon Solutions, two carbon capture companies, have both proposed pipelines to carry captured carbon dioxide through the Midwest into permanent underground sequestration sites. Neither project has been permitted yet, but both are gaining traction and hope to be in operation by 2024, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. (ExxonMobil has also proposed a similar plan along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas that it claims would cost $100 billion to complete and would store 100 million metric tons of CO2 per year.) 

Navigator bills its 1,200-mile pipeline as a “solution for a greener planet.” But a growing coalition of progressive environmental groups in the U.S. believe this sentiment is a myth. 

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CCS has come under severe scrutiny from climate activists in recent months as the Department of Energy has greenlit millions for its research and development and the Biden administration has proposed investing billions in it through the Infrastructure Plan and the 2022 Federal Budget. On July 19, hundreds of environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada co-signed an open letter to federal legislators in both countries expressing concern over carbon capture, calling it “unnecessary, ineffective, exceptionally risky, and at odds with a just energy transition and the principles of environmental justice.” 

“Transporting and storing carbon dioxide (CO2) involves a massive network of perilous pipelines connected to underground injection sites, each with their own set of dangers,” the letter says, citing threat of leak or rupture, drinking-water contamination, explosions, and air quality concerns over the release of compressed CO2, which can cause asphyxiation. (Other critics have also expressed concern over limited space for underground storage and the likelihood that said storage will inevitably fail.) 

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Despite these risks, CCS is lauded by many—including federal regulators, large environmental nonprofits and the fossil fuel and coal industries—as a reasonable solution to the growing problem of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. 

Though the technology has splintered environmentalists, large green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have both endorsed carbon capture as a key to reducing U.S. emissions. Their support is driven in part by a recommendation from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international authority that has cited carbon capture as necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. 

But many environmentalists lambast this as a “false promise,” one that’s peddled by polluting industries in a bid to extend their lives. With growing public interest and investment in renewables and the crash of oil following COVID-19, critics believe carbon capture offers fossil fuel interests a new technology through which to solicit public funding while allowing them to continue extracting and burning dirty fuels.  

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“There's a ton of climate disinformation around carbon capture, and for obvious reasons, because the fossil fuel industries benefit from this,” said Dr. Tamra Gilbertson, carbon pricing education coordinator at the Indigenous Environmental Network. “[This] technology is not going to benefit the climate at all. It's benefiting the private industries and these big multinational corporations. They know exactly what they're doing.”  

CCS is one of a few different types of technologies that claims to reduce or mitigate levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—this one, by collecting it directly at industrial facilities, compressing, cooling and converting it to a liquid state and relocating it elsewhere for storage underground. Though it can be carried out in a few different ways, the most common technique for carbon capture involves collecting exhaust or flue gas directly from plants through a vent, where it’s carried to cooling towers and run through a chemical solution that binds CO2 molecules to amines while separating out all other compounds. What’s separated out is vented into the atmosphere while the distilled carbon dioxide is sent into a compressor, where it’s converted into a fluid to be transported on trucks or in pipelines to sequestration sites. 

Another method, Carbon Capture/Utilization and Storage (CCUS), effectively does the same thing, but sends the product to oil and gas fields, where it’s used as drilling fluid to revive depleted oil and gas reservoirs in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Direct Air Capture (DAC), or Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), claims to collect carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere—but this technology has yet to be rolled out at scale

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Navigator CO2 advertises its infrastructure as “forward-thinking.” The company is currently gauging commercial interest from industrial clients, from whom they’d collect emissions straight from the source to send to a permanent underground sequestration site. Summit Carbon Solutions, slightly further along in its commercial process, has secured partnership to sequester carbon from 31 ethanol refineries throughout the midwest. 

(Both companies are headed up by former oil industry executives: Navigator CEO Matt Vining came to the company after leading business development at TPF Gas Services, while Summit COO James Powell joined the company after years working with Kinder Morgan and BP. Neither company responded to Motherboard’s request for comment.) 

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In theory, this technology could solve the world’s climate woes. In practice, opponents like Gilbertson say it’s expensive and ineffective. Existing CCS plants have only had the capability of capturing a fraction of the emissions their facilities created, while simultaneously requiring immense energy on its own. A 2020 literature review by June Sekera, visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research, found that carbon capture technology emits more than it sequesters. Her paper concludes that carbon storage through direct air capture facilities powered by renewable energy sources is the only industrial method that could meaningfully reduce atmospheric CO2 removal. But this comes with its risks, and Sekera, herself, believes there are safer ways to achieve the same ends, like investing in tree-planting and forest fire mitigation to replenish earth’s natural carbon stores. 

Focusing public resources on building out carbon capture at scale distracts from these causes, she says. Removing 1 gigaton of CO2 (around a sixth of the greenhouse gas volumes the US emitted in 2019) from the atmosphere, Sekera’s paper notes, would require pipelines in numbers well beyond existing oil infrastructure and land 10 times the size of the state of Delaware.

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“The amount of pipelines are enormous,” Sekera said, which is risky, because these pipelines have been known to leak. Last year, a pipeline owned by EOR company Denbury Resources Inc., carrying CO2 through Yazoo County, Mississippi, ruptured; 45 people living near the incident were sent to the hospital, where they were treated for exposure to dangerously high levels of CO2. Authorities reported victims looking dazed, some foaming at the mouth, others acting “like zombies,” the Clarion-Ledger reported at the time. Sekera found a number of other CO2 pipeline rupture incidents like this one in her research, and is wary of the health implications of a mass buildout of carbon capture facilities.

“It's inevitable, somebody is going to be killed,” Sekera said. 

Yet, for all of its pitfalls, carbon capture has maintained a strong reputation as a green tech boon. Sekera and Gilbertson believe this is part of a broader disinformation effort by the coal and fossil fuel sectors, which are grasping at straws to stay alive and see building costly plants to slice their emissions as a way to do so. (In the case of EOR, in which liquid CO2 is used to resuscitate once-dead oil and gas wells, this technology is quite literally being used to extend the life of the fossil fuel industry.) 

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Gilbertson points to the San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired facility in New Mexico that is slated to close in 2022 unless a proposed carbon-capture tack-on is approved: “The corporation is pushing for CCS [because it] gives that generating facility another lifeline," she said."So it will stay open longer, as long as the CCS infrastructure is being built into it. It legitimizes itself based on the input of CCS.” 

Gilbertson, for her part, sees the allocation of federal funding to carbon capture as no different from any other bailout to polluting industries. But she also notes that CCS plants will only further entrench environmental inequalities in the U.S.: By nature of being glommed onto existing industrial facilities, CCS plants will only multiply the amount of pollution that primarily burdens low-income, Indigenous and communities of color.  

“This is further entrenching inequalities and sacrifice zones, and is a further expansion of climate and environmental racism,” Gilbertson said. 

Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, echoes the sentiment, noting that the Summit and Navigator pipelines would likely tear through tribal lands in the midwest. For a technology that she sees as yet to have proven to be scientifically viable, this sacrifice isn’t worth it. 

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“There is no scientific demonstration that carbon capture works, or that carbon sequestration works, that we know how to do it, that we know what the longer-term effects might be,” Shepard said. “Why would we invest more money in an unproven technology when we can invest money in technologies that we know will work?”

As chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), Shepard recently helped pen a list of recommendations to the Biden administration as it narrows in on its #Justice40 commitments—a series of steps in line with the goal of devoting 40 percent of federal climate investments to frontline communities that have historically borne the brunt of the consequences of environmental degradation. Second on a list of projects that “will NOT benefit a [environmental justice] community,” the recommendations say, is CCS. Third on the list is direct air capture.

But for all the risks that the two midwest pipelines pose to the communities that WE ACT was founded to protect, there are countless more in the thousands of miles of additional pipeline gaining traction in the US Department of Energy (DOE). 

A recently formed group called the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), headed up by Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who has long had financial ties to the oil industry, recently built a blueprint for a network of carbon capture pipelines that is twice the size of the current U.S. oil and gas pipeline network, DeSmogBlog recently reported. The proposal includes plans to build out carbon trapping and transportation hubs in the Ohio River Valley, the Gulf Coast, and Wyoming, each reducing local emissions by hundreds of metric tons.

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This, the blueprint claims, will aid the Biden Administration in reaching its goal of reducing 50 percent of economy-wide emissions by 2030 and going net-zero by 2050, all while preserving jobs in “hard-to-decarbonize sectors.” It also encourages the federal government to extend the $8-billion in funding for carbon capture that the Trump administration allocated last December through the Energy Act of 2020.

Gilbertson is skeptical of anything that aims to multiply pipeline infrastructure in the U.S., noting that there are real risks to doing so. Leaks, blowouts, and the like are “common, rather than exceptional,’ in legacy oil and gas infrastructure, one 2019 study states, and CCS infrastructure is not immune from this. EFI’s blueprint dismisses these hazards, citing an IPCC prediction that “it is very likely that 99 percent of CO2 injected for underground storage would be secure for 100 years.” (Motherboard reached out to EFI, and their representatives declined to comment.)  

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What the EFI proposal does drive home, however, are the jobs that tripling U.S. pipeline volumes would protect. The first backer on the plan is AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 labor unions that has long vocally supported building out carbon capture technology as a climate solution.

“Organized labor looks and sees its proposals for 68,000 miles of CO2 pipelines and thinks those are jobs,” said Mitch Jones, policy director at Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental watchdog organization. 

Opponents like Jones see the jobs argument as a tired one: Countless proposals for the buildout of renewables include well-paying jobs. Hiring specialized talent to build solar panels and wind turbines is a surer bet than putting faith in carbon capture, which has yet to be successful at scale in the U.S. 

“Every time the industry tries to set up a big demonstration to show finally that carbon capture is going to work, it's been a colossal failure,” he said.  

Jones notes that a failed experiment in Texas is a prime example of this. In 2017, NRG Energy and Japanese Mining and Metals company JX Nippon poured $1-billion (alongside $195-million in funding from the DOE) into building Petra Nova, a carbon capture plant poised to suck 4.6 million short tons of carbon dioxide emissions directly from a coal-fired power plant 30 miles southwest of Houston, Texas. Petra Nova was designed to capture one-third of the coal plant’s emissions and send them through a pipeline for 81 miles to the West Ranch Oil Field, where the captured carbon would be injected into the ground to continue supporting fossil fuel extraction. 

Around the time of its construction, it represented a new beacon of green energy infrastructure. The world’s largest installation of carbon capture on a power plant, Petra Nova was the “poster child of what carbon capture could do,” Daniel Cohan, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University told Gizmodo in February.

But over the course of its three year life, the plant suffered outages on 367 separate days, falling short of its emissions storage goals by 17 percent, Reuters reported last year. It was shut down for good in May, 2020 following the crash of oil in response to COVID-19. NRG continues to advertise the short-lived project as a success.

Continuing to put faith in a technology that’s only ever failed is wasteful, Shepard says. She fears that a large-scale federal funding for carbon capture through the infrastructure bill or federal budget would throw a lifejacket to the oil and gas and coal industries while diverting funds from other, more essential projects, like renewables. 

“These are solutions that we think distract us from actually doing the hard work of reducing emissions,” Shepard says. 

“People talk about them as transitional technologies,” she continued. “But these are technologies we don't think we need to be spending money on. Public funds should be spent on solutions that create jobs, that really transition fossil-dependent workers to renewable energy jobs.” 

Shepard is instead devoting her attention to passing a federal clean energy standard—an accepted definition of renewable energy that does not include controversial “bridge” technologies like carbon capture or nuclear power, as some localized ones do.  

And Gilbertson, who is similarly dismayed to see continued funding proposed for carbon capture, is also throwing her support behind small-scale renewables.

“A lot of the funding that could be used for small scale and renewable energy projects is being funneled away to support the fossil fuel industries, and that is real climate crime,” she said. “We don't have the time for this. The CCS battle, we're losing really, really rapidly.”