Carbon capture can help the environment, but only if it’s done safely

New federal subsidies are meant to encourage the use of carbon capture and sequestration. Lawmakers must put safeguards in place for using the technology here in Illinois.

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Corn grows in front of an ethanol refinery in 2021 in Chancellor, South Dakota.

Corn grows in front of an ethanol refinery in 2021 in Chancellor, South Dakota.

Stephen Groves/AP

Because of Illinois’ unusual geology, many companies throughout the nation’s midsection might want to capture carbon dioxide emissions from their operations and ship the gas to Illinois for sequestration underground.

Before that happens, Illinois should put strong safeguards in place to protect residents, landowners, taxpayers, drinking water and the climate.

New federal subsidies are encouraging the use of technology to capture and store carbon dioxide, which is emitted by burning fossil fuels. The technology makes it possible to store the gas thousands of feet underground to keep it out of the atmosphere, where it would help drive up global temperatures.

For more than a decade, Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Decatur has been operating the nation’s first carbon sequestration project, and others are planned elsewhere. But for a network of carbon sequestration to make an appreciable dent in carbon dioxide emissions, it would have to be exponentially larger than ADM’s.

Editorial

Editorial

“We have never done anything at this scale,” Pam Richart, co-director of the Eco-Justice Collaborative in Champaign, told us. “That raises a lot of uncertainties about whether we can do it. If it isn’t done correctly, there can be induced earthquakes. That kind of seismic activity could fracture cap rock and release CO2.”

Federal regulations governing the new and risky technology are limited. For example, the federal rules don’t require pipelines, which can rupture, to be a safe distance from sensitive sites. The Legislature needs to put safety measures in place to prevent long-term problems for the state, about 70% of which is home to an underground formation called the Illinois Basin. The basin is suitable for storing carbon dioxide.

Lots of risk in transporting CO2

Keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is imperative if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Last month, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned the world is sleepwalking to “climate catastrophe,” and the U.N. has called for drastic cuts in the burning of fossil fuels.

But if compressing, transporting, injecting under high pressure and sequestering carbon dioxide underground is going to be part of the answer, it must be done safely. And it should not distract from efforts to increase the use of natural carbon sequestration, such as expanding forests, prairies, wetlands and grasslands, and planting more trees in urban areas.

Storing carbon dioxide below the site where it is generated, as ADM does, is the best option. Capturing it and transporting it long distances is a different matter.

The risks of transporting carbon dioxide from one state to another are many. It takes a lot of energy to capture carbon and compress it into liquid form for transportation and sequestration, and that energy should not come from burning fossil fuels. Any transportation must be free of leaks that send the CO2 right back into the atmosphere.

Long-term underground storage sites must be leak-proof as well. And capturing carbon dioxide should not be used as a trade-off to enable more air pollution from coal-fired power plants or other fossil fuel-burning industrial facilities. The net effect of carbon sequestration should be a significant climate solution.

Moreover, carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant that can harm or kill people, livestock and wildlife if it escapes from pipelines or its underground storage. For example, a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide burst in 2020, and the gases traveled more than a mile to a small Mississippi village. Forty-six people were hospitalized with carbon dioxide poisoning.

Even stored underground, CO2 can be a risk. If it pushes brine upward through cracks, drinking water could be tainted. If the carbon dioxide comes into contact with drinking water, it can form carbonic acid, which can dissolve rock and release heavy metals into drinking water, Richart said.

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Pipelines carrying carbon dioxide should not be situated near residences, schools, health care facilities, mines, wells or other sensitive sites. An effective monitoring system, paid for by the industry, should be in place to guard against life-threatening leaks. Financial protections should be created to prevent landowners, taxpayers and the government from being stuck with the future tab if something goes wrong.

It takes more than a century for carbon dioxide to solidify into the porous underground layers where it would be stored.

The Legislature is considering bills to regulate carbon capture, and stakeholders are in the process of negotiation. The Illinois House Energy & Environment Committee held a subject matter meeting on the topic May 1. Any final bill should ensure Illinois is regulating the technology responsibly.

Keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is an important goal. But it needs to be done in a way that is safe for people and the environment.

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