A little over three years ago, a menacing fog crept into the valley surrounding the small village of Satartia, Miss., causing a mass poisoning. Within minutes of breathing the air, residents choked and dropped to the ground. Nearly 50 people were hospitalized.
First responders didn’t know the calamity was caused by a carbon dioxide pipeline failing, but clues were there as they struggled to get to the scene. Gas-powered vehicles couldn’t move, and some people lay in the streets struggling to breathe. Jack Willingham, the emergency director for the town’s county, told NPR, “It looked like you were going through the zombie apocalypse.” And he told HuffPost that despite the disaster, the village was in fact lucky because if the wind had blown differently or the incident had happened when people were sleeping, there would have been deaths.
The havoc that day was caused by a rupture in a carbon dioxide pipeline that shot a massive white cloud of concentrated CO2 into the air in a dangerous rolling fog. Because CO2 displaces oxygen and oxygen is needed for gas-powered cars to work, vehicles wouldn’t run. Because CO2 is heavier than air, the thick fog didn’t dissipate but settled on the ground where its lethal potential was narrowly avoided.
Carbon dioxide pipelines are a key part of the federal government and fossil fuel industry’s emerging carbon capture plans, designed to stop the greenhouse gas from reaching the atmosphere by capturing it and transporting it to underground storage. In Canada, there are a handful of carbon capture projects in operation or being planned, but the largest by far is the proposed plan of the Pathways Alliance. It is seeking to build a massive carbon pipeline stretching 400 kilometres from the oilsands in northern Alberta to a storage hub in the Cold Lake region (about 300 kilometres east of Edmonton) at a price tag of at least $16.5 billion.
The Pathways Alliance is composed of Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy, ConocoPhillips, Canadian Natural Resources and MEG Energy, who say their carbon capture plans can help Canada meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. However, industry watchers say the plan is really about finding a way to stay in business as a global effort to phase out fossil fuels ratchets up.
As countries like Canada plot a dramatic expansion to CO2 pipelines to help deal with rising emissions from the oil and gas sector, experts say more attention must be paid to the safety risks that come with carbon dioxide management. Crises like what happened in Mississippi, and other incidents like a CO2 leak at a Wyoming school that forced students to evacuate or the Lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon that saw more than 1,700 people killed by a massive carbon dioxide cloud, may be rare, but they point to the safety risks related to concentrated CO2.
In Canada, there are no dedicated regulations guiding CO2 pipelines at either the federal or provincial levels, according to the University College London. However, Natural Resources Canada told Canada’s National Observer that while there are no specific CO2 rules, the Canada Energy Regulator does regulate CO2 pipelines that cross provincial or international borders, using oil and gas pipeline safety standards called CSA Z662. The department also said CO2 pipelines within provinces are similarly regulated in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
When CO2 pipelines fail, they can fail catastrophically, putting human lives in danger. Experts say this risk isn't widely understood, even as governments plot a huge CO2 pipeline expansion as part of their carbon capture plans.
For Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, whose territory would be affected by the Pathways Alliance project, safety concerns are top of mind. At the same time, trust in the provincial regulator and the oil and gas industry has been decimated this year as revelations have come to light that the Alberta Energy Regulator and Imperial Oil knew of a tailings leak at the company’s Kearl site and failed to communicate the risk to the nation.
“They said it was going on for nine months. Well, the new report says the Alberta Energy Regulator along with Imperial knew of this leak for years,” he said. “Everything's coming out now.”
He said when Pathways Alliance approached the nation he represents, the nation’s leadership wanted to distance themselves from the carbon capture megaproject because of the health risks.
“There's no benefit to anybody… We're going to cook Mother Earth from the inside out,” he said.
Centre for International Environmental Law campaign manager Jane Patton told Canada’s National Observer safety concerns over CO2 pipelines are a pressing issue that is not widely understood. That lack of information is especially worrying given that in Canada and the United States, where she’s based, tens of thousands of kilometres worth of CO2 pipelines are planned to be built as carbon capture becomes more central to the governments’ greenhouse gas emission-cutting strategies.
To transport CO2, it's transformed from a gas to a liquid by putting it under high pressure, she explained. “Because the [CO2] running through the pipeline is kept in that super high-pressure state, if and when failures happen in the pipeline, it all comes rushing out in this great blast.”
Even small fissures or cracks can result in catastrophic consequences because people in the area could be rapidly inundated with CO2, she added. “They are suddenly deprived of oxygen, which causes severe respiratory distress. It can cause things like foaming at the mouth, it can cause [seizure-like symptoms], it can cause fear and trauma and have long-lasting physical effects.
“And if people are able to call for help, first responders can't get there ... because their engines literally don't work,” she said. “And the worst part of all this is people have no idea why … they just suddenly can't breathe.”
‘Trying to carve out an exception’
Beyond the safety risks of the pipelines themselves, University of Saskatchewan adjunct professor Jason MacLean says the climate science is clear that all fossil fuels must be phased out to avoid pushing the atmosphere beyond the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding warming to 1.5 C.
In the international climate change negotiations last year, many countries rallied around a call to phase out “unabated” fossil fuels. Consensus was not reached but MacLean explained that the purpose of using the term “unabated” is to create exceptions that allow for continued growth of fossil fuels using abatement technologies, like carbon capture.
Countries like Canada are “trying to carve out an exception to what climate science is unequivocally saying: We have to phase out and eliminate all fossil fuel use. There can be no more natural gas, coal, or oil production,” he said.
Despite carbon capture technology being branded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the most expensive and least promising avenue to reduce emissions, it’s a clear priority for Ottawa. The federal government has unveiled a series of financial incentives for companies looking to build CO2 pipelines. Two years ago, Ottawa pledged $319 million over seven years for research and development to improve the commercial viability of carbon management technologies (including capture and transportation) and this year, announced a carbon capture, utilization and storage tax credit expected to be worth $2.6 billion over the next five years.
In late September, Natural Resources Canada also published its carbon management strategy, which spells out how the federal government intends to build a multibillion-dollar carbon management sector.
“Carbon management technologies are an important part of how Canada can decarbonize its heavy industries and ensure they can compete and succeed in the global race to net zero by 2050,” said Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson in a statement.
According to a memo prepared for Wilkinson that Canada’s National Observer received through a federal access-to-information request, the strategy involved nearly 1,500 stakeholders and more than a year of consultations, and “may be an important signal to encourage private sector investment.”
Moreover, the memo says publishing the carbon capture strategy is an opportunity for Canada to highlight its “leadership in the lead up to COP28” — the United Nations’ annual climate conference later this year in Dubai.
MacLean considers carbon management “a great euphemism” designed to shift the focus off carbon capture and sequestration, which “has been so thoroughly criticized in the academic, scientific and independent literature … to justify the continued use [of fossil fuels].”
In fact, last year, over 400 academics wrote to the federal government warning that supporting the oil and gas sector’s carbon capture plans with public money would lock in fossil fuel use for decades to come, thereby undermining the country’s international commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
A recent study from Oil Change International found Canada is on track to be the second-largest fossil fuel expander, behind the United States, by 2050. On its own, Canada’s planned fossil fuel expansion represents 10 per cent of the world’s expansion plans, creating the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of 117 coal plants running for decades.
In light of the country’s planned fossil fuel expansion, highlighting Canada’s carbon capture strategy that’s being used to justify further planet-scorching fossil fuel production at COP28 is unlikely to go over well.
“The idea of Canada as a leader in this area is laughable,” MacLean said. “Its record since 1990 speaks for itself.
“Nobody outside of Canada who knows anything about climate policy sees Canada as anything other than a laggard.”