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Fossil Fuel Companies Turn to “Green” Pipelines to Qualify for New Subsidies

With emission cuts on the horizon, the fossil fuel industry is working hard to stay in business.

Indigenous youth and organizers with the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipeline fights hold a protest against pipeline projects to urge President Biden to "Build Back Fossil Free" at the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C., on April 1, 2021.

On Monday, the world’s leading authority on climate science, the International Panel on Climate Change, issued the first part of its sixth and most dire assessment of the climate emergency, which UN Secretary General António Guterres characterized as a “code red for humanity.”

Decarbonizing the global economy within the waning timeframe climate scientists have defined is an exceptionally complex endeavor. But at least one maneuver in pursuit of slashing greenhouse gases is clear-cut. In May, the notoriously conservative International Energy Agency called on world leaders to end all investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, and to do so immediately. A few governments are taking steps to do just that. Costa Rica is considering legislation that would ban all new exploration and extraction. One county in Washington State recently became the first U.S. county to ban new fossil fuel activity.

But by and large, Big Oil companies and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle whose campaigns they’ve contributed to have no shortage of concepts — including carbon offset programs and funding for carbon capture and storage — to aid the industry in digging out and burning ever more oil, gas and coal. It doesn’t appear that the could-be historic climate legislation Congress is considering — woven into the infrastructure bill — will take ample measures to stomp the brakes on the climate emergency.

On the contrary, the infrastructure bill in its current form appears to be an attempt to keep fossil fuels flowing, says Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy for the global climate campaign “What we’re seeing is this idea that fossil fuel companies can continue to drill and burn, but somehow they’re going to make it benign,” Mebane said.

Wind-Powered Pipes

This summer, “green” fossil fuel infrastructure proposals have been popping up in many flavors.

Ahead of the Senate’s unveiling of its 2,000-plus page infrastructure bill, Canadian pipeline operator TC Energy gestured at plans to clean up its 62,000-mile network of oil and gas pipelines by powering the network with wind and solar energy, rather than natural gas.

TC Energy, owner of the recently canceled Keystone XL pipeline, has yet to decide on where it will invest in turbines and solar panels to cover the 5-7 gigawatts of energy it would need annually to keep oil and gas pumping through its network, as Reuters has reported. Reducing emissions by transitioning to wind and solar-powered pipes will likely save the company money in the long term, has reported.

It may also position the company favorably for some of the $25 billion in new subsidies fossil fuel companies are eligible for, such as a grant program to build out “renewable” equipment designed to “refine, electrolyze, or blend any fuel, chemical or product.”

On a July 29 earnings call, executive vice president and president of U.S Natural Gas Pipelines for TC Energy Corporation, Stanley G. Chapman, expressed an interest in “renewably sourced natural gas,” calling it “more and more of a theme these days.”

Carbon-Neutral Pipes

Plans for more “sustainable” fossil fuel infrastructure are also likely an attempt by the fossil fuel industry to hold on to some social license amid the climate crisis, as hail falls in the tropics and smoke from west coast wildfires snuffs out sunlight on the east coast.

Grassroots group Appalachian Voices has pointed out that developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) may be attempting to do just this. The MVP is another long-contested project, intended to send fracked gas 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia through the New River and Roanoke Valleys in Virginia. The project has faced ongoing resistance, including activists’ prolonged presence in tree encampments to block the felling of trees along the route.

Earlier this summer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to issue a key federal water-crossing permit on account of “substantial concerns” about how the project would impact streams and rivers. The project is also awaiting final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

In the meantime, two of the pipeline’s developers — Equitrans and NextEra Energy Resources — announced plans to make the pipeline carbon neutral. “Equitrans Midstream is committed to aggressively pursuing climate change mitigation and adaptation while also balancing the immediate and increasing need for energy in our country,” Diana Charletta, president and chief operating officer of Equitrans Midstream Corporation, said in a statement.

According to the plan, the company will purchase $150 million in carbon offset credits from the American Carbon Registry, which will be generated by an unspecified coal mine in Virginia. At the coal mine, developers will install a regenerative thermal oxidizer — a piece of equipment that would convert methane leakage that occurs during the process of mining for coal into carbon dioxide and water vapor. Methane has an 86 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, so the plan could ostensibly lessen the coal mine’s overall contribution to the climate crisis. Company officials say the plan will mitigate 90 percent of operational emissions from the MVP over the first 10 years it’s in service.

But as organizers have pointed out, that estimate does not include emissions generated upstream or downstream of the pipeline, such as fracking or burning the gas. Moreover, the MVP is designed to pump natural gas for upwards of 50 years. If natural gas flows through the MVP as planned, it’s projected to produce 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, the emissions equivalent of 26 coal plants, according to calculations by the Bold Alliance and Oil Change International, not to mention other harmful pollutants related to the pipeline itself, including radioactive substances such as radon.

“The plan does nothing for counties that are impacted by that project,” Jessica Sims, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, told Truthout. In addition to continuing to release carbon dioxide and water vapor from the coal mine — both potent greenhouse gases — the offsets do not address long-standing community health risks or the loss of tree coverage related to mining.

“Reasonable people can disagree as to whether this strategy to address climate change has any merit within a ‘market-based’ framework,” Sims co-wrote in an opinion post. “But what is not up for debate is that carbon is either emitted, or it is not.”

The “carbon neutral” proposal may, however, position the Mountain Valley Pipeline more favorably in the eyes of FERC regulators as it awaits its final approval, as Natural Gas Intel reported, given that the agency adopted a more stringent greenhouse gas emissions review process earlier this year.

Sims also expressed concern over a lack of research regarding the safety or health impacts of installing a regenerative thermal oxidizer in coal mines. Equitrans and NextEra Energy Resources did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment on whether use of the oxidizer in a coal mine was based on external or company research and how it might impact surrounding communities.

More broadly, advocates say, lawmakers should look critically at any plans that place offsetting carbon at their center. The carbon offset market has had an accounting problem for its three decades of existence, as Grist has reported, because businesses and governments often think they’ve canceled out their tons of pollution when in fact the credits they purchase may have come from a source that didn’t actually remove more carbon from the air, such as a forest that no one was planning to cut down in the first place.

Mebane says this accounting problem is much like the calculus for carbon capture and storage. She calls both “mathematical schemes” that disregard the fact that people still live near polluting facilities even if those emissions are “offset” or captured and shipped elsewhere.

An April 2021 analysis by Greenpeace of the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory data shows that oil refineries and petrochemical facilities are among the most polluting sectors of the U.S. economy, and that the burden of those sectors disproportionately rests on low-wealth, Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. “Carbon neutral oil,” which is how fossil fuel companies brand products made using offsets or carbon capture, still contributes to air and water pollution and delivers similar health risks.

“How do we pretend like we’re actually making progress … and that somehow the human being who lives there, next to the coal plant, next to a gas plant, by the pipeline, by the fracking — that somehow, they are immune to the effects?” Mebane said. “It is racist, plain and simple.”

Carbon Pipes

On July 19, a group of 500 organizations including penned a letter to the Biden administration urging the president and Congress to reject federal funding for carbon capture technologies, instead saving funds for safe and people-centered investments like nonpolluting energy sources and lead pipe replacement.

But carbon capture made it into the current infrastructure bill in a big way and is likely to lay the foundation for a whole new generation of pipelines that will transport carbon dioxide captured at industrial sites to hubs throughout the U.S., as The Verge has reported. The current iteration of the proposed legislation includes $100 million for these buildouts, plus $2.1 billion for low-interest loans and grants from 2022 to 2026.

Jane Kleeb is the founder and president of the Bold Alliance, a network of grassroots groups committed to protecting land and water from fossil fuel development — another group that signed the July 19 letter. After years of organizing, she says anti-pipeline activists are finally getting the public and politicians to understand the environmental and health risks of tar sands and gas pipelines. “And now we’re having to do that battle all over again with the CO2 pipelines and it’s the same risk: it’s expanding fossil fuel use, it’s putting families in the path,” Kleeb said. “These pipelines could explode, they could leak dangerous gases. The idea of putting toxic waste into the ground, in hopes that nothing happens, is really ludicrous to me.”

Mebane calls the carbon offset market a “joke” and out of the purview of the infrastructure bill, which the Senate is poised to pass on Tuesday. However, the prospect of the federal government funding an expensive and expansive carbon capture network that excuses and props up the fossil fuel industry is very much on the table.

Lawmakers, including National White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, continue to ignore the recommendations of leading environmental justice practitioners, including those who sit on Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council, according to Anthony Rogers Wright, director of environmental justice for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

“It must, therefore, be stated lucidly that support for [carbon capture and storage] is an exacerbation of environmental racism, an affront to Tribal/Indigenous sovereignty, and nothing more than a perverse lifeline to industries that profit off of death and calamity,” Wright said.

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