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Excerpts from The Gassing of Satartia:
A Massive Buildout
A Small Town Becomes a Guinea Pig for a Huge National Experiment with a Dangerous Gas
The February 2020 CO2 pipeline rupture less than half a mile from the little village of Satartia, Mississippi shows how ill-prepared we are for an unprecedented build-out of CO2 pipelines nationwide. Our investigation studied what went wrong when a relatively-new pipeline blew up without warning near a populated area, forcing some 300 to evacuate and putting 49 people in the hospital.
A Massive Build-Out
Once the province of a few policy wonks and coal companies, shipping carbon dioxide and storing it underground has gotten much more mainstream attention in recent years amid a tsunami of conferences, draft legislation and interest groups.
The fossil fuel industry has gotten behind CCS as a technology that, it hopes, would allow continued production so long as the emissions are buried underground. But the immense network of pipelines needed to transport carbon dioxide to locations where it would be stored deep below ground weren’t discussed publicly until recently, nor was how such a rapid, unprecedented pipeline buildout could be done.
A much-touted December 2020 Princeton University study ― funded in part by the oil industry ― calls for a 65,000-mile system by 2050, which means adding 60,000 miles to the current 5,000 miles of CO2 pipeline. The new system would be organized into a spider web of continent-spanning trunk lines as large as 4′ in diameter — twice the size of the Satartia pipeline — fed by a system of smaller spur lines.
Princeton Net-Zero America Report
But even 65,000 miles of pipeline could only move 15% of current U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. To have any effect on climate change “would entail CO2 pipeline capacity larger than the existing petroleum pipeline system,” which totals 2.6 million miles, according to a 2020 study in Biophysical Economics and Sustainability.
Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S. government has spent over $8 billion to promote carbon capture and storage (CCS). But almost all of the CO2 in current pipelines is used for enhanced oil recovery rather than being injected deep into the earth for secure geologic storage, and enhanced oil recovery produces more emissions than it sequesters. Almost none of today’s CO2 is manmade, but comes from natural sources like the Jackson Dome.
CO2 and Natural Gas Pipelines Very Different
Proposals like Princeton’s would likely require extending CO2 pipelines into heavily populated areas, across mountains and other natural barriers. The cost of such an enormous system is driving some to suggest simply repurposing existing natural gas pipelines to move CO2.
But because CO2 is corrosive and will eat through the carbon steel used in petroleum pipelines if contaminated with even small amounts of water, CO2 pipelines have to be manufactured to a higher standard and the purity of the gas carefully monitored. And research shows that CO2 from a commonly used carbon capture technique is particularly likely to have water in it. CO2 pipelines also run at significantly higher pressures than natural gas pipelines, which in turn requires more energy-gobbling compressor stations along the line to keep the CO2 in a liquid state.
That’s why a 2019 National Petroleum Council report warned against using existing natural gas pipelines to move CO2. The American Petroleum Institute has also highlighted the risks.
Yet an influential white paper produced jointly by the Energy Futures Initiative, headed by former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and the AFL-CIO proposes doing just that. “Repurposing the expansive U.S. network of existing oil and gas pipelines presents a ripe opportunity to lower costs for CO2 transport,” said the report.
Moniz was Biden’s energy adviser in his 2020 presidential campaign, and oversaw billions in spending on CCS in his time at the Department of Energy. He and his team are considered leading experts on both natural gas and carbon dioxide infrastructure. Yet the petroleum industry’s own longstanding warnings about mixing gas technology with carbon dioxide are nowhere to be found in a 79-page report or its 299 footnotes.
“So much of it is about cost cutting, finding ways to do things cheaper and where can you make compromises,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law and co-author of a highly critical report on CCS and pipelines.
Muffett noted that CO2 behaves differently from natural gas inside a pipeline — in ways that make a CO2 rupture uniquely dangerous.
“Because of the intense pressures involved, explosive decompression of a CO2 pipeline releases more gas, more quickly, than an equivalent explosion in a gas pipeline,” noted a report by CIEL and the Environmental Working Group, and “even a modest rupture can spread freezing CO2 over a wide area within seconds.”
A complicating factor in the Satartia accident was the presence of hydrogen sulfide. A Mississippi Emergency Management Agency email from the night of the accident said the leak contained an “unknown amount of pressurized CO2 with H2S.” CO2 is often contaminated with hydrogen sulfide, and Muffett points out that not only does H2S increase the corrosiveness of CO2, but it has serious health effects that can include damage to the nervous system, lungs, liver and heart.
Even CO2 by itself, however, can be quite lethal. On a summer day in 1986, a thick plume of CO2 from a volcanic lake in Cameroon killed 1,746 people. Birds dropped out of the sky and whole families died together in minutes.
Short of death, however, there is a wide range of CO2 inhalation effects, which include dizziness, headache, nausea, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, memory disturbances, lack of concentration, disorientation, convulsions, and unconsciousness ― symptoms that closely track those of Satartia’s gassing victims.
Unfortunately, few emergency rooms are familiar with the range of its effects.