OPINION: Carbon dioxide pipelines are under-regulated and dangerous

If you happened across the small, rural community of Satartia, Mississippi, on Feb. 22, 2020, you might have thought you’d entered the scene of the most recent zombie movie. Dozens of residents collapsed, some walking in circles and foaming at the mouth amidst a cloud of green fog. Emergency responders, donning scuba gear, heroically ran into the cloud and carried victims to safety. Vehicles’ internal combustion engines were inoperable, leaving many residents stranded and sick. All told, nearly 50 people went to the hospital, and some still suffer health consequences today.

It was, of course, not a zombie movie. A carbon dioxide pipeline operated by Denbury Resources had ruptured, emptying its contents into the community. Since carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant that is heavier than air, it stayed close to the ground while the terrain and weather kept it from dispersing for hours. Satartia is incredibly lucky to have avoided fatalities. I hope this kind of danger does not come to Alaska.

Last month, Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled legislation that would allow state lands and waters to become an underground carbon dioxide waste receptacle. Such a plan undoubtedly would involve a system of pipelines. Given the series of tax credits in the 2022 federal Inflation Reduction Act, which incentivizes carbon capture and sequestration, ensuring carbon dioxide pipeline safety is critical. Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed legislation, House Bill 50 and Senate Bill 49, do not include any measures addressing pipeline safety, leaving needed safety upgrades entirely up to the federal government.

As a pipeline safety expert, I can confidently say that we are not ready for a buildout of carbon dioxide pipelines. Federal minimum safety regulations are in desperate need of modernization. I am the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a national nonprofit pipeline watchdog formed in the aftermath of a pipeline tragedy in Bellingham, Washington, in 1999. In that completely avoidable failure, three boys died when a quarter-million gallons of gasoline emptied out of a pipeline and into the salmon stream that runs through the middle of town and eventually ignited. The Trust works to prevent other communities from having to experience that kind of grief and loss.

Back in 1986, a large, natural release of carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos in Cameroon led to the death of every person within a 16-mile radius of the release — more than 1,700 people. In response, Congress mandated that the U.S. Department of Transportation begin to regulate carbon dioxide pipelines. Rather than develop new rules to mitigate the unique risks carbon dioxide pipelines pose, U.S. DOT simply added carbon dioxide to existing pipeline regulations designed for hydrocarbon liquids, a step that was wholly inadequate and inappropriate. For example, an impurity such as water, which is notoriously difficult to eliminate from carbon dioxide pipelines, can wreak havoc on a pipeline by producing carbonic acid which aggressively eats at steel and is not addressed in current regulations.

An important component of the safety regulations around maintaining our nation’s pipelines is determining which homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and other buildings are within the area where a pipeline failure could injure or kill people. This can be a relatively simple calculation for hydrocarbon pipelines. However, for carbon dioxide pipelines, a release can travel over large distances in lethal concentrations in unknown directions for large distances. Identifying the impact area goes well beyond a simple calculation and requires sophisticated plume dispersion modeling, for which scientists and engineers have yet to develop best practices. Plume dispersion research needs to develop appropriate modeling and only then can appropriate regulations follow.

Prior to passage of legislation, Alaska legislators should read the Pipeline Safety Trust’s report on carbon dioxide pipelines, prepared by an independent expert on pipeline safety engineering. It contains a list of recommended common-sense safety regulations. I call on U.S. DOT to adopt new regulations as identified in that report to keep the people of Alaska and the rest of the country safe. Additionally, I respectfully ask the leaders of your great state to not rush to pass the governor’s Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Act until communities are ensured of appropriate minimum safety standards for carbon dioxide pipelines.


Bill Caram is Executive Director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Washington. Previously in his career, Bill traveled around much of Alaska as a consultant for Alaska Native corporations.

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