A new generation of pipelines could be born out of the bipartisan infrastructure deal making its way through Congress. But instead of hauling oil and gas, the pipelines would carry planet-heating carbon dioxide. The massive bill would allocate funding for new infrastructure devoted to capturing carbon dioxide, and transporting it to places where it can be buried underground or used in products like carbonated soda.
Carbon capture technology aims to scrub CO2 directly at the source of emissions — but it’s remained controversial among climate activists, with many seeing it as a false solution that distracts from emission reduction goals. But Congress’ new bipartisan infrastructure plan would invest billions of dollars into the idea, committing the US to ambitious carbon capture and removal schemes that have never been attempted at this large scale.
“The infrastructure bill has opened the floodgates for carbon capture piping.”
“The infrastructure bill has opened the floodgates for carbon capture piping. Watch out,” tweeted Alan Ramo, professor emeritus at Golden Gate University School of Law.
The new provisions focus mostly on using carbon capture and removal to tackle industrial emissions, rather than emissions from the power sector. The Biden Administration has particularly encouraged carbon capture for industries like cement and steel, which are difficult to electrify and decarbonize. (Cement alone is responsible for 8 percent of global CO2 emissions.) Focusing on those industries might keep carbon capture from being used as a way to extend the life of coal plants or other heavy-emitting power sources, a problem that’s come up with carbon capture technologies used in the power sector.
The new infrastructure bill would fund a sort of network for industrial carbon capture and storage. There’s already been significant work on scrubber technology that removes carbon dioxide at the source, so the new bill directs much of its funding at building a pipeline network that would carry that CO2 away from the initial emissions point. The bill also funds projects that could serve as a destination for that CO2, either using it in commercial products or injecting into the ground for storage.
The full text of the bill, which senators released on August 1st, recasts the suite of emerging carbon capture and removal technologies as essentially a new type of critical infrastructure. “Carbon dioxide transport and storage infrastructure share similar barriers to deployment previously faced by other types of critical national infrastructure, such as high capital costs and chicken-and-egg challenges, that require Federal and State support, in combination with private investment, to be overcome,” the bill reads.
All in all, the bipartisan infrastructure package earmarks more than $8.58 billion for carbon capture and removal. Much of the money is split between funding infrastructure for transporting carbon dioxide and finding a final destination for it. The Department of Energy would get $100 million to engineer “transport infrastructure,” aka pipelines for moving CO2. There’s another $2.1 billion to provide low-interest loans and grants for carbon dioxide transportation infrastructure projects from 2022 to 2026.
The bill would also give the DOE $2.5 billion over five years to develop “commercial large-scale” projects to safely store CO2. It sets aside funds to permit wells for burying carbon dioxide deep in geologic formations. The bill specifically eyes the outer continental shelf — the offshore area beyond states’ jurisdiction — as one place for carbon sequestration and allows the Department of Interior to permit carbon storage projects there. The bill also creates a grant program for states and local governments to buy and use products made with captured carbon, which might include things like concrete and plastic.
The bill also envisions four regional hubs across the US for “direct air capture” plants — facilities that draw carbon dioxide down directly from the atmosphere. Over the next five years, $3.5 billion would go toward these “regional hubs,” each capable of drawing down at least 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually (roughly as much as 120,000 homes in the US might generate from their energy use each year).
Carbon capture and removal is still expensive and at relatively early stages of development, which means it can likely only be developed with significant government funding. And there’s been even less attention paid to the pipeline infrastructure to support it.
“The problem is who pays for this giant pipeline initially, when there only are a handful of projects,” says Noah Deich, president of the nonprofit Carbon180, which advocates for the carbon removal technologies. “That’s what the legislation is incentivizing essentially, to build the big pipelines from the beginning so that it overcomes that chicken and egg issue and gets more and more of these industrial projects happening.”
But critics still worry that a focus on carbon capture and removal takes away from efforts to wean economies off fossil fuels in the first place, which puts a stop to carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants that usually accompany it. Hundreds of environmental groups sent a letter to Biden last month calling carbon capture “a dangerous distraction.”
The groups also warned that it would take money away from other important environmental efforts. The bipartisan infrastructure bill ended up including a lot less funding for climate action and environmental cleanup than the Biden administration proposed earlier this year. But the infrastructure package includes much of what advocates for carbon capture and removal had asked for in an earlier bill called the SCALE Act.
The infrastructure bill provides “minimal support” for a renewable energy transition while “squandering” billions on carbon capture, Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law said in a statement to The Verge. “As a corporate giveaway, the energy provisions in the Infrastructure bill are a massive success. As a response to the climate emergency, they are a dismal failure.”
Like pipelines for fossil fuels, there are risks
There are also fears around the pipelines themselves. CO2 pipelines would probably be concentrated in industrial areas, and thus would be less sprawling than pipelines used for fossil fuels. But that could add an extra burden on neighborhoods already overloaded with industry.
And like pipelines for fossil fuels, there are risks that come with that infrastructure potentially failing. CO2 that’s captured is moved at high concentrations under high pressure. That makes it a potential asphyxiant if the infrastructure moving it fails. When a pipeline carrying CO2 for enhanced oil recovery in Mississippi ruptured last year, 45 people were treated at a hospital. A sheriff’s investigator described sick people acting “like zombies” after the incident.
“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 July letter from environmental groups to Biden reads.