Pipeline debate at center of California carbon capture plans
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — In its latest ambitious roadmap to tackle climate change, California is relying on capturing carbon out of the air and storing it deep underground on a scale never before seen in the United States.
That level — promoted by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration — comes just as the Biden administration has increased incentives for carbon capture projects in an effort to spur more development nationwide. Last year, Newsom signed a 20-year climate commitment a law requires California to remove as much carbon from the air as it emits by 2045 — one of the world’s fastest timelines for achieving so-called carbon neutrality. He directed the powerful California Air Resources Board to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels and build massive amounts of carbon dioxide capture and storage.
To meet its climate goals, California must rapidly transform an economy larger than most nations, but strong resistance to carbon capture from environmental groups and concerns about how to transport the gas safely can delay progress — practical and political hurdles the Democratic-led legislature must now navigate.
Last year, the California state legislature passed a law that says no carbon dioxide can flow through new pipelines until the federal government finishes writing stronger safety regulations, a process that could take years. As a potential backup, the law directed the California Natural Resources Agency to write its own pipeline standards for lawmakers to consider, a report that is now more than three weeks late.
While there are other ways to transport carbon dioxide gas besides pipelines, such as trucks or ships, pipelines are considered key to achieving carbon capture at the level California envisions. Newsom said the state must capture 100 million tons of carbon each year by 2045 — about a quarter of what the state now emits annually.
“We don’t expect to see (carbon capture and storage) happen on a large scale unless we’re able to solve that problem with pipelines,” said Rajinder Sahota, deputy director of climate change and research at the air agency.
State Sen. Anna Caballero, who authored the carbon capture legislation, said the state’s goal will be to create a safety framework that is even more robust than what the federal government will develop. But she played down any urgency to move forward with the pipeline rules, saying smaller projects that don’t require movement over long distances can start in the meantime.
“We don’t need pipelines across different properties right now,” she said.
Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act increases federal funding for carbon capture, increasing payments from $50 to $85 per ton to capture carbon dioxide from industrial plants and store it underground. There are also federal grants and state incentives.
Without clarity on the state’s pipeline plans, the state is putting itself at a “competitive disadvantage” when it comes to attracting projects, said Sam Brown, a former attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency and a partner at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth.
If the pipeline moratorium slows down projects for three or four years, Brown said, “why would you put your money into these projects in California when you can do it in Texas or Louisiana or somewhere else?”
The geology for storing carbon dioxide gas is rare, but California has it in parts of the Central Valley, a large swath of farmland that runs down the middle of the state.
The oil and gas company California Resources Corp. is developing a project there to create hydrogen. It plans to capture carbon from the hydrogen plant and the natural gas plant that powers it. The carbon dioxide would then be stored in an old oil field. It does not require special pipeline approval because it all takes place within the company’s property.
But the company also wants to store emissions from other industries such as manufacturing and transport. Transportation that would depend on pipelines that cannot be built yet.
“These are parts of the economy that need to be decarbonized,” said Chris Gould, the company’s executive vice president and chief sustainability officer. “It makes economic sense to do so.”
Safety concerns rose in 2020 after a pipeline in Mississippi ruptured in a landslide, releasing heavier-than-air carbon dioxide that displaced oxygen near the ground. 45 people were treated at a hospital and several lost consciousness. There are thousands of miles of carbon dioxide pipelines operating across the country, and industry advocates call the event an anomaly. But the Mississippi spill prompted federal regulators to look into tightening the existing rules for carbon pipelines.
Lupe Martinez, who lives in California’s Kern County, worries about what will happen when developers target the region for carbon storage.
He used to spray fields with pesticides without protective equipment. On windy days he would be drenched in chemicals. Martinez, who saw some of his colleagues later fight cancer, says he was lied to about safety then and doesn’t believe promises that carbon capture is safe now.
“They treat us like guinea pigs,” said Martinez, a longtime labor activist.
Emissions from the oil and gas industry are a major cause of climate change, and in the past the industry has undermined solid evidence that greenhouse gases deeply disrupt the climate. Now, carbon capture – unproven as a major climate solution – will help the industry continue to pollute places that are already heavily polluted, environmentalists argue. Instead of closing fossil fuel plants, carbon capture will increase their profits and extend their lifespan, said Catherine Garoupa, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.
But carbon capture advocates say it’s important for Kern County oil and gas companies to find new ways to make money and keep people employed as California moves away from fossil fuels, an industry that is “the very fabric” of the region’s identity, said Lorelei Oviatt, director of Kern County Planning and Natural Resources.
Without a new source of revenue like carbon capture, “Kern County will be the next Gary, Indiana,” she said, referring to the collapse of the rust belt years ago.
There are currently no active carbon capture projects in California. To demonstrate that the technology is viable and people can get permits for it, it’s important to build the first projects, said George Peridas, director of carbon management partnerships at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.
Peridas said one area with the potential to store carbon dioxide is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a large estuary on the western edge of the Central Valley that is a vital source of drinking water and an ecologically sensitive home for hundreds of species.
A levee-ringed island of farmland in the region, which is nearly half the size of Manhattan, would be an ideal place for safe storage of carbon dioxide, Peridas said.
Tom Zuckerman, the island’s owner, recently submitted a federal permit application for a project to capture emissions from an ethanol plant in Stockton, send it by barge nearly 10 miles down the San Joaquin River and impound it deep under the island. The project does not need a pipeline, so it is not affected by the ban. He hopes it will be up and running in a few years.
“If we’re going to do much of anything to reduce greenhouse gases in this country, areas like this are going to be critical,” Zuckerman said.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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