canada africa partner reservation Latest carbon dioxide leak raises safety and regulatory concerns • Iowa Capital Dispatch

Latest carbon dioxide leak raises safety and regulatory concerns • Iowa Capital Dispatch


LOUISIANE — It wasn’t the wail of a siren or the buzz of an emergency phone alarm that alerted Tanya Richard that a pipeline was spewing poison gas near her home. The first clue that something was wrong came from her cats, a colorful collection of free-roaming felines who fled her property as the dense cloud of carbon dioxide (CO2) rolled over a rural part of southwest Louisiana on April 3.

“I usually have six kittens here that want to be fed when I get home,” says Richard, who lives just outside Sulfur, a small town in Calcasieu Parish about five miles from Lake Charles. “But they were nowhere to be found. Then I noticed that no cars were passing by. I said, ‘Tanya, something strange is going on.’”

It turned out that a 2-foot diameter pipeline at a CO2 pumping station about a half-mile from Richard’s home had ruptured, releasing about 300,000 gallons of gas, which can cause drowsiness, suffocation and sometimes death. Colorless, odorless and heavier than air, carbon dioxide can travel unnoticed and in deadly concentrations over great distances.

The CO2 pipeline network is undergoing rapid expansion as companies invest in the booming carbon capture and sequestration market. With this growth comes concerns that emergency response communities may be unprepared or even unaware of the possibility of hazardous spills.

On the outskirts of Sulphur, local police and firefighters could do little more than set up roadblocks and wait for the pipeline’s owner, ExxonMobil subsidiary Denbury Inc., to send repair specialists.

Calcasieu Parish issued an advisory urging everyone within a quarter mile of the pump station to close doors and windows and turn off air conditioners, but officials relied mainly on social media to convey the warning. The parish limited its emergency alert system to telephone numbers for addresses within a quarter mile of the station. That amounted to about eight houses, four of which were likely vacant, according to parish officials.

The pumping station and pipeline are not equipped with alarms or other methods to warn local residents of leaks or other accidents.

Several Sulfur residents say they either received no notice of the leak or became aware of it through Facebook posts more than an hour after the gas began spreading.

“There should have been alarms and the entire community should have been informed,” said Roishetta Ozane, a community organizer who lives five kilometers from the station. “I don’t trust the system we have at all.”

Growing pipelines

The pipeline, acquired by Exxon when it bought Denbury last year, is part of a 900-mile network stretching through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. In the U.S., more than 5,000 miles of pipelines, including the section that runs near Sulphur, are used primarily for enhanced oil recovery – a process in which carbon dioxide is injected under pressure into old or declining oil reservoirs to squeeze out the remaining deposits .

Much of the current and projected growth of the CO2 pipeline network is related to burgeoning carbon capture technologies, which allow industrial facilities to store CO2 underground rather than releasing it into the air. The Biden administration has made carbon capture a key part of its efforts to reduce emissions. Billions of dollars in federal subsidies and tax incentives are up for grabs, prompting a slew of projects along the Gulf Coast and a massive expansion of the carbon pipeline network.

(Illustration by Bethany Atkinson/Deep South Today)

According to the Congressional Research Service, carbon dioxide pipelines could reach more than 60,000 miles by 2050—a 13-fold increase.

Safety regulations are not keeping pace, says Kenneth Clarkson, communications director for the Pipeline Safety Trust. The Sulfur leak is just the latest accident in a network that is prone to accidents and has weak warning and emergency response systems, he said.

“This recent unacceptable leak from another part of Denbury’s infrastructure underlines the immediate need for robust and comprehensive safety regulations for carbon dioxide pipelines,” Clarkson said. “This incident could have been much worse.”

‘A sharp warning’

Local fire officials alerted Exxon to the April 3 leak shortly after it was first reported around 6 p.m. The company’s Texas-based repair team arrived an hour and a half later. Wearing masks and air tanks, crews stopped the leak just before 8:30 p.m. — nearly two and a half hours after it was first reported, according to data from the Ward Six Fire Protection District in Calcasieu Parish. The shelter-in-place advisory was lifted at 9:15 p.m

No injuries or serious illnesses were reported, parish officials said.

Exxon is still investigating the cause of the leak. In a statement, the company promised to “learn from this.”

“We apologize for any disruption this may have caused,” an Exxon spokesperson said. “In response to any incident, our priority is to help maintain the safety of the community, our workforce and the environment, and we thank all first responders for their assistance during this event.”

Clouds of water vapor and carbon dioxide gas escape from a CO2 pipeline near Sulfur in southwestern Louisiana on April 3, 2024. The noxious gas led to an on-site advisory and concerns about the safety of pipelines and warning systems. (Photo courtesy of Ward 6 Fire Protection District)

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there have been several accidental releases from the pipeline, including a 1,000-gallon CO2 leak at the same location in 2011.

In 2020, the pipeline had two large-scale spills in the small Mississippi community of Sataria, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Jackson. One rupture, caused by a mudslide after a heavy rain, forced about 200 residents of Satartia to evacuate and hospitalized at least 45 people. Rescuers found people fainted or disoriented and struggling to breathe.

“They found me, my cousin and my brother unconscious with foam coming out of our mouths,” said DeEmmeris Burns, who was fishing with family members near the Satartia leak when the CO2 cloud reached them. “They thought we were dead.”

James Hiatt, an environmental activist from Calcasieu, worries about a worse incident in Sulfur or elsewhere along the pipeline, which passes through several parishes.

“These repeated incidents serve as a stark warning,” he said. “It is critical that these risks are (not) ignored or minimized.”

‘There should be alarms for this’

Despite being outside the shelter’s radius, Richard began experiencing headaches and drowsiness – both symptoms of mild CO2 exposure.

“That night I got a huge headache, like a migraine,” she said. “Then I felt extremely sleepy, as if I had taken a sleeping pill. I couldn’t get up. I did not feel well.’

Many animals can detect CO2 at lower concentrations than humans, which may explain why Richard’s cats ran off. Laboratory experiments testing CO2 as a way to euthanize animals showed an “innate avoidance” of CO2 at concentrations below 1%, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. People can only smell the gas when it exceeds 30%.

Richard said she doesn’t have to rely on her cats to alert her when a pipeline ruptures.

“There should be alarms for this,” she said. “I was very angry that most of us had to find out about this on Facebook. Some older people here don’t have internet.”

Social media was flooded with misinformation about the leak. Residents initially told each other that the road closure was related to a traffic accident. When it became clear that a pipeline had burst, some commentators downplayed the danger, saying the gas was harmless or that photos of the leak showed a visible, pale vapor, while CO2 is invisible. But because CO2 pipelines are pressurized, a rapid release of gas can produce a cloud of water vapor that can travel separately from the carbon dioxide, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

“It seemed like no one knew what was going on until it was supposedly over,” said Cindy Robinson, who lives a mile from the spill. “We are simply not prepared for these types of accidents.”

Carbon hub

The southwest corner of Louisiana is already heavily industrialized and has dozens of chemical plants, oil and gas facilities and a dense network of pipelines. The region is also poised to become a hub for carbon capture and sequestration projects. The Lake Charles area features both a dense concentration of carbon-producing facilities and proximity to porous underground rock formations that can store large amounts of carbon. Companies plan to build many more pipelines connecting facilities to storage locations.

Ozane, the Sulfur community organizer, said PHMSA and other regulators should not allow additional CO2 pipelines until better safeguards are in place.

“How are they going to manage more pipelines if they can’t safely manage the pipelines they already have?” she asked.

The federal government has no specific standards for the transport of CO2. According to the Pipeline Safety Trust, the rules governing the carbon dioxide pipeline network have not been significantly revised since 1991.

Federal regulators are considering new safety rules for CO2 pipelines that may require leak detection technology and stronger pipeline materials. Details about the proposed rules have not yet been released to the public. The process has been repeatedly postponed and it is unclear when the rules will be approved.

Even though new rules are slow to come, Richard says she is now much more aware of the risks in her community. She often passed the pipeline in her car, but always assumed it was carrying oil – a substance that is easier to see, smell and collect during a leak.

“There are pipelines all around us, but I had no idea some of them had this gas, and that worries me,” she said. ‘But I’m aware of it now. That’s for sure.”

This article first appeared on Verite News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.