The Lead

Opinion: Storing carbon underground is risky. Allowing storage companies to shed liability makes it even riskier.

By: - December 19, 2023 6:01 am

Overview of natural gas fracking pad near Moundsville West Virginia (Getty Images)

By Joseph Otis Minott

Carbon capture and storage technology is designed to remove carbon dioxide from industrial processes and then store it underground. It’s been touted as a climate change solution.

Yet as with any new, unproven innovation, it’s hard to know what to expect from carbon capture and storage. But a recent investigation of two carbon storage pilot projects in Norway sheds some light on what we can expect in Pennsylvania. It’s the latest indication that lawmakers should reject any legislation that would shift liability away from developers and to tax-funded government agencies. 

The Norwegian study looks at two carbon storage projects in one of the most well-studied geologic formations in the world. The results have baffled scientists. It turns out that carbon dioxide doesn’t just stay put when it’s injected deep underground.

The buoyancy of carbon dioxide means that it moves and churns and tries to escape. And the only thing that can lower the chances of carbon storage project failure is painstaking, around-the-clock surveillance, from the time the carbon is first injected and for as long as it stays underground. Advocates for carbon storage claim it will stay underground  “forever.”  

That means monitoring should last forever, too. But new legislation moving in Harrisburg would allow carbon storage developers to transfer liability for their projects to the public after only 10 years following completion. 

In other words, these companies can come to Pennsylvania, dump waste carbon underneath our communities, claim lucrative tax credits for carbon sequestration, and, after just 10 years, pass along any and all responsibility for maintaining the integrity of these projects to the Department of Environmental Protection, courtesy of our tax dollars.  

Of course, these project developers are lobbying furiously on behalf of this liability transfer. For them, it’s a cost-cutting measure. The technology behind carbon storage is still being tested, and infrastructure and long-term monitoring come with significant costs.  The sooner these companies can wipe their hands of project liability, the more money they’ll be able to keep in their pockets. 

And if companies know they won’t be held accountable for the long-term integrity of their projects, they may be inclined to skimp on safety measures and use cheaper, weaker materials for project construction. In short, the less time these companies are responsible for their own projects, the more they’re encouraged to cut corners, pushing this burden onto the public.   

It’s a classic case of short-term industry profit at the expense of long-term public good. The best way to keep our loved ones safe is to forgo carbon storage in the first place. But if these projects move forward, our decision-makers must ensure they’re as safe and as closely monitored as possible. That means ensuring that liability remains where it belongs – in the hands of developers.

Joseph Otis Minott is President of the Clean Air Action Fund. He writes from Philadelphia. 

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