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The Hill's latest climate fight

pipeline protest sign in Iowa

A sign against a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline in New Liberty, Iowa. Photo: Miriam Alarcon Avila/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Carbon dioxide pipelines are a new frontier shaping the Hill's debate about the energy transition.

Why it matters: Carbon capture has always been divisive. Now there are billions more federal dollars on the table from the IRA and infrastructure law to build out new grids of pipes for moving CO2 underground.

  • The potential boom is fracturing the left and creating tricky political problems in traditionally Republican areas.
  • "There's massive ignorance within the Democratic Party about this," Rep. Jared Huffman told Axios. "People have no idea what's really going on."

What's happening: Concerns about these pipelines — underground tools for transporting and storing CO2 sucked from smokestacks or the air — have been coloring work on reauthorizing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

  • House T&I's bipartisan reauthorization bill, the PIPES Act, would clarify the agency's authority over CO2 pipes and move toward new minimum safety standards.
  • During debate on House legislation to renew the safety regulator, Huffman and Republican Scott Perry debated adding language that would make the government scrutinize safety more closely. (It didn't happen amid concerns that it would upend the bill's delicate support.)
  • PHMSA's also working on a safety rulemaking after a 2020 CO2 pipeline rupture in Mississippi led to evacuations and hospitalizations, while the Forest Service proposed last year to potentially allow carbon to be stored under national forests.

Between the lines: We expect CO2 pipelines to also get wrapped up in the broader Hill conversation about permitting and "clean" energy infrastructure.

  • Climate hawks and the energy industry expect to massively expand the CO2 pipeline network, juiced by an expanded 45Q tax credit for carbon capture in the IRA and billions for demonstration projects in the IIJA.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told Axios that CO2 pipelines and hydrogen should be part of the permitting conversation, alongside grid infrastructure and offshore wind.
  • Republicans have also long sought to overhaul section 401 of the Clean Water Act to prevent states from blocking pipeline infrastructure that moves across their waterways.

What they're saying: Rep. Garret Graves told Axios that he gives the Biden administration credit for being "very clear that carbon capture is reality."

  • "There's no question that carbon capture plays a role," he said.
  • While local concerns need to be addressed, "the more pipelines are used for hydrogen and to properly dispose of CO2 and not for further fossil fuel, there's a different aspect to that," Whitehouse said.

The intrigue: Many climate experts see these projects as essential to an effective, comprehensive decarbonization effort. But local opposition is growing.

  • CO2 pipes already run thousands of miles around the country. Right now they're mostly used by oil companies to extract more fossil fuel from the ground, not for decarbonization.
  • After the fracking boom and some headline-grabbing pipe failures like the one in Mississippi, the ethanol industry is facing massive local pushback in the Midwest on building pipe networks to sequester carbon.
  • That bubbled up in the Iowa primary, where Vivek Ramaswamy made it a signature campaign issue.
  • "It's been tough. I think it's been harder than these project developers were expecting," Renewable Fuels Association President Geoff Cooper told Axios.

The other side: Hill progressives are gearing up for a fight, too.

  • Huffman and other lawmakers wrote Biden in October calling for a moratorium on all new CO2 pipelines until PHMSA finishes its safety regs. (The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)
  • "It is going to be impossible for the public to adequately weigh in on decisions on siting these CO2 pipelines in a way that ensures protection of public health because the public isn't going to know what those impact areas are," said Jim Walsh, policy director for Food and Water Watch.

Reality check: No federal program governs these pipeline projects except on safety, said Martin Lockman, a fellow at Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change law.

  • "I'm not aware of any high-profile efforts [to make a program]," Lockman said.
  • Maggie Coulter, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, added that "the whole regulatory framework has just not contemplated this kind of massive build-out of CO2 or hydrogen pipelines."
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