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Waking Up From Pipe Dreams

Illustrations by Jason Aragon ’24, an Illustration major at RISD

The residents of Yazoo County, Mississippi were confronted with a danger the world had yet to witness in February 2020: a carbon dioxide pipeline explosion. Within minutes, residents were dazed, foaming at the mouth, and left unconscious by the green cloud sweeping over their town. Individuals who were not too disoriented to walk scrambled to their cars—the most logical escape route. Those who made it as far as their vehicles were met with the frightening realization that the gas paralyzed their cars’ engines. They were trapped. 

While this was the first noted instance of mass outdoor exposure to piped CO2, it is unlikely to be the last. The tragedy of Yazoo County is a clear warning sign of the United States’ unpreparedness to handle a CO2 pipeline network expansion, which recent legislation is destined to bring.

The Yazoo County explosion occurred after a 24-inch pipeline carrying concentrated CO2 and hydrogen sulfide ruptured in a heavily wooded area near the town of Satartia, Mississippi. While CO2 is commonly thought of as harmless, at high concentrations it displaces oxygen from the air, causing asphyxiation in humans and preventing cars from burning fuel. The fossil fuel company that operates the pipeline, Denbury Inc., had taken little action to warn the community about this potential danger. For 15 minutes, even Denbury workers themselves did not realize that the fog from the explosion was CO2.

CO2 leaks had also not been on the radar of the nearby firefighters, sheriffs, or hospital staff, which is particularly troublesome given that 49 individuals were hospitalized due to asphyxiation. Thankfully, although residents still report lingering physical and mental impacts from the explosion—such as lung dysfunction, stomach disorders, and mental fogginess—there were no fatalities. Despite how it may seem, Yazoo was lucky. Many of America’s pipelines lie much closer to towns than the one near Satartia. Moreover, many of these towns have populations significantly larger than that of Satartia. Additionally, the Denbury rupture happened at 7:00 in the evening, when people were awake and responsive to both their surroundings and local authorities. Had the explosion happened just a few hours later, rather than breathing apparatuses, first responders might have needed body bags.

Such a scenario could take place if action is not swiftly taken. A report published in March of 2022 by the Pipeline Safety Trust (PST), a prominent pipeline safety group, warned that the nation’s CO2 pipeline regulations are dangerously insufficient and fail to address public safety risks. This report was published in response to a rush of multibillion-dollar CO2 pipeline projects following the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill’s vast allocation of funding to the carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry. The PST’s report urges the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the agency with authority over CO2 pipeline safety—to update its regulations as soon as possible.

As we await these regulations, new pipelines are being planned in populated areas, posing a risk to the communities surrounding them and raising significant concerns regarding environmental justice. Hazardous waste facilities and fossil fuel extraction, processing, and transportation infrastructure have often been located near marginalized communities. Therefore, it is reasonable to worry that CO2 pipeline pathways could follow similarly harmful patterns if environmental justice is not centered during the CCS expansion process. Major pipeline proposals currently also face opposition from landowners and advocacy groups, as these projects require companies to build through private property and communities, displacing some and endangering others. Community members fear for not only their personal safety in the aftermath of the Satartia explosion, but also their livelihoods: Soil and water contamination pose serious threats to crop security. Their resistance has increased the difficulties developers encounter when acquiring voluntary agreements with landowners for pipeline rights-of-way through their properties. Nevertheless, developers can still obtain rights-of-way via eminent domain authority, which typically involves receiving siting permits from state utility regulators. This example, in addition to the necessary preparations of states and communities for potential pipeline leakages, exemplifies the large role of local and state authorities in dealing with CCS expansion. States and municipalities must recognize the importance of CO2 pipeline safety and act accordingly. With the power to implement their own pipeline regulations, the greater ease of quick implementation, and an understanding of their communities’ needs, state governments should pursue the recommendations outlined by the PST and provide support for municipalities to institute emergency preparedness procedures as soon as possible. 

On the federal level, the PHMSA responded to the Yazoo explosion by announcing new safety measures in May 2022 intended to protect Americans from similar failures. The recommendations include research solicitations to strengthen CO2 pipeline safety; the encouragement of pipeline operations to plan for risks that could threaten pipeline integrity; and the development of updated standards for CO2 pipelines, which contain requirements for emergency preparedness and response. While it is a critical step forward, this announcement is just that—an announcement. It does not guarantee implementation of the necessary regulatory changes proposed by the PST nor does it acknowledge funding for local towns and municipalities to properly set up preparation mechanisms. Only stringent regulations on both the federal and state levels can ensure all potentially impacted communities are equipped to respond. The upcoming regulations—which the PHMSA should at the very least announce a timeline for—should ensure such preparations never need to come into play.

The lack of awareness and preparation for this potential danger is especially frightening considering recent investments to expand our nation’s CO2 pipeline network. The Inflation Reduction Act enables a large upscaling of the carbon capture industry through updates to the 45Q tax credit, which incentivizes the use of carbon capture and storage. By increasing the government subsidy from $50 to $85 per metric ton, CCS is now much more financially viable for producers. Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill provided $100 million to the Department of Energy to design a pipeline network to transport compressed CO2 emissions to underground storage sites, $2.1 billion in loans and grants to build said pipelines, and $3.5 billion to construct four atmospheric CO2 removal facilities. All this means that the industry could grow 13-fold by 2035. For many years, concerns about the United States’ limited preparation for CO2 pipeline emergencies were simply passing wonderments of distant futures. Now that the country has made significant strides in climate change policy, these casual hypotheticals are becoming dangerous realities.

While the United States’ groundbreaking climate legislation should be lauded, it must be coupled with regulations to address the risks that accompany CCS expansion. Agencies like PHMSA are in the process of updating regulations, but further steps must be taken to fund local emergency response teams, implement additional local and state regulations, and reduce the public safety risks to surrounding communities. In doing so, we can prevent disasters like the one in Yazoo County.