Federally-funded carbon waste disposal projects ignite opposition

Federally-funded carbon waste disposal projects ignite opposition

June 21, 2023

GRAND ISLE, Louisiana – This barrier island reaches like a crab leg more than 50 miles out into the Mississippi River Delta south of New Orleans, with a row of fishing cabins perched atop 10-foot pilings and shrimp boats trawling near oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The lacework of wetlands that produce those shrimp have long been under assault in part from climate change. But now the wetlands are facing a new threat: a federally-funded project to combat climate change.

A Dallas-based company called Cox Oil recently received federal funding to help build a 110-mile carbon dioxide pipeline from petrochemical plants in Geismar, Louisiana, to Grand Isle. The idea is to bury the chemical factory pollution  – up to 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide captured from smokestacks, then cooled into a liquid state – in depleted oil wells beneath the floor of the Gulf of Mexico offshore of this barrier island.

The so-called “Louisiana Offshore CO2 Hub” project received $8.4 million from the Biden Administration on May 22. An added financial boost for Cox is that it and its partners will be able to use the liquid carbon to blast more oil and gas out of the ground, a process called “enhanced oil recovery,” a Cox presentation on the project explains.

The carbon storage project is one of at least 27 proposed in Louisiana – and more than 100 nationally – because of billions of dollars in federal carbon capture subsidies that were included as part of the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Biden.

“We are thrilled to be part of a market-based solution that is leading the way for CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Brad Cox, who chairs Cox Oil and its affiliate company, Carbon-Zero.

Dallas-based Cox Oil has an operations center on Grand Isle, Louisiana, and has received federal funding to help build a 110-mile carbon pipeline from chemical plants in Geismar, Louisiana, to bury the waste offshore of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico.

An environmental organization called Healthy Gulf, as well as some fishermen and scientists, have raised alarms about the proposed carbon storage projects because of the damage they could cause to fragile ecosystems for little or no environmental benefit.

Healthy Gulf estimates that the Louisiana Offshore CO2 Hub could destroy up to 800 acres of wetlands in an area that needs to restore its wetlands to protect New Orleans and other areas from flooding. Some scientists doubt that storing liquid carbon in former oil fields, perforated with holes from decades of drilling, will work as a technique to combat climate change. Critics argue this is especially true when drilling companies use carbon injections to produce more oil and gas, which will then be burned, emitting more greenhouse gases.

“This is the nightmare proposal,” said Scott Eustis, community science director for Healthy Gulf, of the Louisiana Offshore CO2 Hub.  “The watershed has already seen a tremendous amount of wetlands loss. It may be one of the fastest disappearing landmasses on earth, because of all the pipelines. And now the push for all these pipelines and waste disposal sites is a new era of destruction for our wetlands.”

Under a proposal by Cox Oil and partners, petrochemical plants in Geismar, Louisiana – including the Shell Geismar Chemical plant, pictured here – could capture their carbon dioxide and pipe it out into the Gulf of Mexico near Grand Isle, where it would be stored underground in former oil and gas wells.

Eustis added that Cox Oil has a questionable record, with more than 600 oil wells operating in the Gulf of Mexico and 860 reported oil spills and accidents from 2004 to January 2023. A subsidiary, Cox Operating, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May, owing more than $200 million to local businesses in Louisiana, according to a news report. Chapter 11 bankruptcy does not mean a company is closing, but that it will likely restructure to pay off its debts. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Justin Solet, a 38-year-old commercial shrimper and member of the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe that lives in the Mississippi Delta, objects to the government and companies using his people’s wetlands for a massive experiment: pumping hundreds of millions of tons of pollution under the Gulf to see if it will stay there.

Justin Solet, a commercial fisherman and member of the United Houma Nation

“Basically, we’re rats in a laboratory, and they are forcing this carbon waste injection down our throats, trying to see if it’s going to work,” Solet said. “The history of indigenous people has always been that we have been the white rats in the laboratories for the colonizers. Everything has been tested on us and the Black population here. You remember Tuskegee, the experiments there. Industry has always tested it on what they call the ’other’ population, not on rich white people. It doesn’t travel through their neighborhoods.”

Archie Dantin, a fisherman on Grand Isle, objected to the proposed CO2 pipeline cutting though his island and its wetlands. “We are losing wetlands every day – a football field a day, or something like that.  It’s just ridiculous,” Dantin said.

Fisherman Archie Danton, seen standing here on the Grand Isle beach, is among those who objects to a proposed carbon pipeline through the island ripping up fragile wetlands.

The Louisiana Offshore CO2 Hub is the only proposal to bury the pollution beneath the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But a similar project –  the Air Products Blue Energy pipeline – would pipe liquid carbon from a proposed hydrogen plant in Darrow, Louisiana, into wells beneath Lake Maurepas, north of New Orleans.

John Hoover III, a professional crabber on Lake Maurepas, said he noticed his blue crab catches drop off dramatically this past winter after a contractor for Air Products started detonating a series of 17,000 dynamite charges under the lake floor as a method of testing the geological formations before the construction of a carbon pipeline and disposal wells.

A company called Air Products Inc is proposing to pump liquid carbon dioxide waste from a new hydrogen plant into disposal wells beneath Lake Maurepas, raising protests from many local fishermen.  They object to the blasting for seismic testing and to the construction of several platforms above waste wells in what is now a pristine lake.

Before the blasting began, Hoover said he would normally catch 12 to 16 crates of blue crabs a day. These days, he’s only catching three or four crates a day – a decline he thinks could be linked to the blasting. He also worries about the planned construction of 10 to 14 platforms for waste disposal wells in what is now an untouched, scenic lake.

“My wife and spent our blood, sweat and tears building our house, right there overlooking Lake Maurepas, with its beautiful sunsets,” Hoover said on his crabbing boat, cruising past a bald cypress tree draped with Spanish moss. “And then we wake up one day [and] we are faced with this carbon capture project turning our beautiful pristine lake into an industrial dumping ground.”

Commercial fisherman John Hoover III says he noticed his catch of blue crabs from Lake Maurepas drop sharply after a contractor for Air Products started 17,000 explosive charges under the lake to test the geology for carbon waste disposal wells.

After protests from several residents against the project, on Oct. 13, 2022, the local government, Livingston Parish, voted 5-2 to block all construction of waste injection wells in the lake and surrounding area. In retaliation, the company planning the wells, Air Products Blue Energy LLC, sued the parish council, arguing that federal and state law pre-empt local decisions on the issue.  Dozens of local residents went out to demonstrate against the explosive testing of the lake bottom, and were turned away by a company security guard holding an assault rifle. A federal judge ruled on Jan. 13 that the parish cannot halt the project.

Air Products Inc. says on its website that people should not worry about environmental impacts from carbon sequestration. “Carbon dioxide (CO₂) is an extremely common gas that we experience in everyday life. We exhale carbon dioxide when we breathe,” the company says. “Plants use carbon dioxide and water to create energy to grow. It is what makes soda and beer fizzy.”

However, if it leaks in high concentrations, CO2 can also asphyxiate people. It can harm aquatic life by forming carbonic acid in water.  A leak in a liquid carbon dioxide pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi, in February 2020, required an evacuation of 400 people and sent 45 residents to local hospitals. Overwhelmed by the gas, some people were unable to breathe. Cars stopped working in the dense CO2 cloud, hampering escape and emergency response, according to a news report.

“What happened was, this big carbon dioxide plume covered a local rural highway, and a lot of people drove through this gas – and then they started to lose consciousness,” said Scott Eustis of Healthy Gulf.  “People went to the hospital, and a lot of them are now on permanent disability because they have brain damage.”

Likely route of the proposed Louisiana Offshore CO2 Hub pipeline from Geismar to Grand Isle, Louisiana, as estimated by Healthy Gulf.

Advocates of carbon storage argue that federal investments in the technology are necessary to combat climate change and control emissions from major industries.

“Large-scale deployment of carbon capture, transportation, and storage infrastructure is crucial to meeting President Biden’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to address climate change,” a Biden Administration Department of Energy press release said on May 22 in announcing an additional $45 million in funding for carbon capture projects.

John Litynski, director of the Carbon Storage and Transport Program at the U.S. Department of Energy, said in an interview with Oil & Gas Watch News that the reason for the $2.5 billion in federal investments in carbon capture is that some heavy industries cannot be powered by wind, solar, or other clean energy sources.  So if the U.S. wants to continue to have steel manufacturing, for example, Litynski said the most practical solution is to develop and perfect carbon capture systems and store carbon deep underground.

“You can’t decarbonize all the heavy industries in the U.S. It’s impossible,” said Litynski.

Helping to make the carbon capture projects safe, Litynski said, is the fact that the CO2 will be injected at least three quarters of a mile or more below the surface of the land or the ocean floor. “The projects are designed for no migration – permanent storage,” he said.

He dismissed concerns about the potential leakage of carbon dioxide. “It’s a robust regulatory process,” he said. The federal regulators in charge of the underground storage well program say “there will be no migration out of the reservoir,” he said.

The BASF chemical plant in Geismar, Louisiana, is among the industries that could use a carbon pipeline to dispose of their waste in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, a U.S. Department of Treasury audit in June 2020 of a federal tax credit program that provides subsidies for carbon capture found that about half of the companies that received $894 million from 2010 through 2019 had to return their government funding because they did not follow EPA rules for monitoring and verification that carbon remained underground.

Three scientists interviewed by Oil & Gas Watch News raised doubts about the permanent storage of carbon in oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Alex Kolker, a coastal geologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said there are several risks to storing liquefied carbon dioxide in former oil and gas drilling areas beneath the Gulf of Mexico. One is that the construction of pipelines will destroy the few remaining wetlands that protect communities from hurricanes and floods.  

“Another risk is just: will this stay in the ground?” Kolker asked. “The idea is to pump the CO2 down deep in the earth, and certainly that’s not impossible. But there is also the possibility that the CO2 could leak through cracks or faults or fissures in the earth, or through old oil and gas wells. One of the bigger risks is putting CO2 into an old oil and gas field. The CO2 would migrate through old oil wells and come out to the surface.”

Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, said that, historically, when CO2 has been used to force out oil and gas through “enhanced oil recovery,” about a third of the gas escapes during the extraction process.

Even more buried carbon could quietly leak out over the years from the perforated geological formations, undermining the whole point of the tax subsidies, he said. “With carbon capture, you have no idea what is happening to that carbon dioxide,” Jacobson said. “For all you know, it’s leaking right away. There is nobody checking all the possible locations.”  

Dominic DiGiulio, a former 31-year EPA environmental scientist, said that leaks in pipelines could threaten both aquatic life and human life.  “The water would definitely become more acidic if there were a pipeline leak. The CO2 would form carbonic acid, which would drop the pH.  So that could potentially impact aquatic life.”

He said the only reason the companies are proposing all these projects is not because they work to combat climate change – but because the companies want the new lucrative federal subsidies.

“There has been a lot of research now for the past 10 or 15 years on carbon capture and storage, and it’s just been too expensive, without credits, without tax subsidies,” DiGiulio said.  

Even with subsidies, carbon capture has often struggled. One of the few power plant carbon sequestration projects in the U.S. to actually operate -- the $1 billion Petra Nova project southwest of Houston, Texas -- began capturing carbon from a coal-fired generating unit in 2017 with the help of a $190 million federal grant. But the project shut down in 2020 due to high costs and mechanical failures. Now, its owners are talking about restarting it this summer, because of the billions in additional subsidies being offered by the Biden Administration.

A nonprofit watchdog organization called Taxpayers for Common Sense is skeptical about any environmental benefit being achieved with the public subsidies. More than 90 percent of the carbon sequestration projects funded by the federal government so far (through an IRS tax credit program called 45Q) have been used by oil and gas companies to inject carbon underground to produce more oil and gas, which creates more greenhouse gas emissions, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense report.

Of the 12 commercial carbon capture projects operating in the U.S. in 2020, 11 were using the 45Q tax credits to inject carbon into oil wells for “enhanced oil recovery,” and only one was injecting carbon into an underground sandstone formation for storage, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense report.  The ultimate cost of the 45Q program to taxpayers could exceed $30 billion by 2030.

“There has been a lot of fraud in the history of the 45Q” program, said Autumn Hanna, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We are very concerned about transparency and accountability and that this isn’t a real climate solution.”

Meanwhile, back on Grand Isle, people fished, kayaked and strolled on a recent afternoon on a golden crescent of beach not far from where the proposed Louisiana Offshore CO2 Hub pipeline could cut through the island.  A rainbow appeared over the offshore shrimp boats and a pair of brown pelicans perched on a breakwater.  Oil drilling platforms loomed on the horizon.

Grand Isle has been repeatedly flooded by hurricanes and its beaches were closed because of the BP oil spill in 2010.  The wetlands surrounding and protecting the island are rapidly vanishing.

Dr. Jerry Patton, an anesthesiologist whose family has owned a fishing cabin on the island for decades, said the island had suffered terribly because of the oil industry in the past – including from the massive BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which shut down the beach.  

But he noted that the island has also suffered because of rapid wetlands loss. “Every year I come back in the summertime, and you see more and more of the island and the marsh just disappearing. Many times, hundreds of yards of shoreline are just gone, from the weather, from tropical storms and hurricanes. But every year, it’s just less and less,” said Dr. Patton.

He said he’s not opposed to the concept of capturing carbon dioxide but worries about the impact of a new carbon pipeline cutting through the island and fragmenting its wetlands.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a good idea – the idea of depositing excess carbon dioxide underground,” said Dr. Patton. “But I would be concerned that it would involve more disruption of the wetlands.  We see enough of that here every year, and to have just another factor contributing to it is a little bit alarming.”

Lead photo: Scott Eustis of Healthy Gulf and fisherman Justin Solet motoring in the Mississippi River Delta south of Houma, Louisiana, in a wetlands that has been carved up by oil companies for drilling platforms.

Tom Pelton
Director of Communications

Tom is Co-Director of the EIP Center for Environmental Investigations. He joined EIP in 2014 after working as a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is author of the book, "The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World," published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (B.A.) and the University of Chicago (M.A.).

Federally-funded carbon waste disposal projects ignite opposition

Federally-funded carbon waste disposal projects ignite opposition

June 21, 2023
Tom Pelton
Director of Communications

Tom is Co-Director of the EIP Center for Environmental Investigations. He joined EIP in 2014 after working as a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is author of the book, "The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World," published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (B.A.) and the University of Chicago (M.A.).