REGIONAL- Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service published a proposed rule that would grant both exclusive and perpetual rights to use national forest lands for the permanent capture and …
REGIONAL- Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service published a proposed rule that would grant both exclusive and perpetual rights to use national forest lands for the permanent capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide.
The proposed new rule, published Nov. 3 in the Federal Register, represents a departure from longstanding USFS policy, which has not granted perpetual rights on its lands in the past.
What’s more, the Federal Register announcement excludes the proposed rule from any environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
The new rule, if ultimately adopted, would potentially speed up the creation of new carbon capture and sequestration projects, which could include the construction of new pipelines to carry the gas. While it appears unlikely any such projects would be proposed on the Superior National Forest, it is possible new pipelines could impact other national forest lands in Minnesota, and it’s already drawing criticism from environmental groups.
“It’s public land,” said Hudson Kingston, an Ely-based attorney who serves as legal director for CURE “and they’re giving it away for nothing.” CURE is based in Montevideo, Minn., and has focused recently on carbon dioxide pipelines.
Pipelines and EOR
While carbon capture and sequestration has the potential to be an important tool in the fight against climate change, opponents of most recent proposals note that the devil is in the details, or perhaps more accurately in the definitions of Carbon Capture and Underground Sequestration, or CCUS. While the process can include geological sequestration through the injection of carbon dioxide into certain geological formations, it can also include the use of the CO2 for what is known as enhanced oilfield recovery, or EOR. In EOR, oil and gas producers inject the CO2 under high pressure to help force more oil and gas to the surface, enhancing their production, and simply adding more CO2 back into the atmosphere as those products are burned for fuel.
Over 80 percent of carbon dioxide captured at its emission source in the U.S. is used for EOR and under federal law it is not only legal but eligible for a tax credit of $60 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide disposed of in this manner. Environmental groups have called out this scheme for using funds that are supposed to mitigate climate change to increase oil and gas production.
Explaining the rule
Sequestration of gasses in deep geologic formations may sound like something new, but it’s actually an old technology. American expertise in underground gas sequestration is the result of more than a century of underground storage of natural gas combined with the nation’s once-dominant position in controlling the world’s supply of helium, formerly stored in deep repositories under the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma.
Deep injection of gas, including CO2, safely into deep formations underground is proven and feasible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already permitted deep well injection of CO2 into geologic formations in Illinois, while the U.S. Department of Energy has a pilot plant in operation in Washington State, injecting carbon dioxide into the Grande Ronde basalt on the Columbia River Plateau.
Disposal of carbon dioxide in the ground requires deep wells and a geologic formation that can hold onto the gas for at least a thousand years. Because storage is extremely long-term, the USFS wrote its proposed rule to reflect this longevity.
“Carbon capture and storage entail injecting and storing carbon dioxide in pore spaces below the surface of the earth,” states the announcement of the proposed rule in the Nov. 3 Federal Register. “Carbon dioxide injected in pore spaces may remain for over 1,000 years after injection and would be tantamount to an exclusive and perpetual use and occupancy if authorized,” notes the Federal Register in its recent announcement.
CCUS and Minnesota
The metamorphic bedrock underneath the Chippewa and Superior National Forests lacks the deep brine aquifers suitable for underground sequestration of carbon dioxide, so any potential impact on Minnesota’s national forests would be limited to pipelines. Pipeline companies and carbon sources, like ethanol plants and fossil fuel power generation stations, would benefit from building a network of CCUS pipelines because of the current federal subsidies and carbon capture tax credits.
National forests were created and intended for public multiple uses, including for resource extraction, like logging and mining. Pipelines are not considered a use contrary to the multi-use mission of the USFS, and in fact, pipelines are common on national forests between Dallas and Houston. All these pipelines must renew their permits with the USFS at regular intervals.
Even here in Minnesota, Enbridge Energy, a Canadian multinational, has easements and permits from the USFS for their six oil pipelines through Chippewa National Forest. It is a plausible hypothetical example that a company like Enbridge could decide to build a carbon dioxide pipeline along its pre-existing right-of-way, perhaps to provide EOR carbon dioxide to the oil fields of North Dakota or Wyoming or the tar sands of Alberta.
“We know there are Enbridge easements through Chippewa National Forest,” Kingston commented while discussing the proposed new CCUS rule with the Timberjay. “Enbridge has to renew those every 30 years. But now, the USFS is proposing to give pipeline companies like Enbridge a perpetual and exclusive right to occupy public land?”
The USFS is accepting public comments until Jan. 2, 2024. Because the 60-day commenting period spans three major national holidays, a coalition of 140 environmental, social justice, and consumer advocacy groups sent a request to the USFS to extend the commenting period by 60 days. “There are a fair number of Minnesota organizations on that list of 140 orgs,” Kingston pointed out. Among those groups are CURE and Ely’s Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.
The letter to the USFS argues, “The public, particularly communities that stand to be most directly impacted by carbon capture and storage projects and CO2 pipelines and injection on USFS lands, cannot be expected to adequately consider and comment on the Proposed Rule given the time of year and tight timeline.” It also raises the argument that area tribes have not been adequately consulted about the rule, which could affect their treaty and sovereign rights.
In an email to the Timberjay, Kingston wrote, “The point I’m making about carbon capture and public lands is that even if it’s feasible, it’s not necessarily acceptable. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do it.”
The text of the proposed USFS rule RIN 0596-AD55 is at https://www.regulations.gov/docket/FS-2023-0014/document. This link also serves as a portal for leaving public comments during the commenting period which is now open through Jan. 2 unless the USFS grants the requested extension.
Comments can also be mailed. Identify all comments by RIN 0596-AD55 and mail them to: Director, Lands, Minerals, and Geology Management Staff, 201 14th St. SW, Washington, DC 20250–1124.