A controversial tactic for slowing climate change is gaining momentum in Texas: capturing carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks. While that could reduce carbon emissions and warm the planet, it could create new problems for communities already saddled with industrial pollution.
Oil giant Occidental announced late last week that it was leasing 55,000 acres along Texas’ Gulf Coast to build a hub for carbon capture technologies. The idea is to capture carbon dioxide emissions from nearby chemical plants, refineries and factories. That CO2 then travels via a pipeline to underground storage sites within Occidental’s proposed hub.
The prospect of these new types of pipelines criss-crossing communities has already spooked some environmentalists. Oil and gas companies like Occidental, on the other hand, were eager to adopt carbon capture technology if it can keep their business afloat, despite federal and state efforts to transition to clean energy. Companies can continue to produce fossil fuels and petrochemicals – generating other types of pollution such as soot and smog in the process – while claiming to fight climate change.
Companies can continue to produce fossil fuels and petrochemicals – generating other types of pollution such as soot and smog in the process – while claiming to fight climate change
In other words, carbon capture becomes a way for companies to call themselves environmentally friendly because they say they are dealing with their greenhouse gas emissions. The caveat is that they don’t necessarily target other types of pollutants that affect air quality and public health. In addition, they may create additional risks from new carbon capture infrastructure.
The carbon capture hub proposed by Occidental would span three counties between Beaumont and Houston, Texas. It will be ideally located near many sources of pollution, according to the March 2 press release. “This hub is located between two of the largest industrial corridors in Texas, allowing captured CO2 to be efficiently transported and safely stored…companies can connect to this hub for access to shared carbon infrastructure,” Jeff Alvarez, president of the Occidental subsidiary 1PointFive Commitment, said in the announcement.
Sharing that infrastructure helps solve a major problem for carbon capture: that it was prohibitively expensive to implement. By building a hub near a high concentration of refineries and chemical plants, Occidental gets more value for money. And the Houston area happens to be home to the largest petrochemical manufacturing complex in the Western Hemisphere.
This concentration of pollutants also means that local residents have to deal with a lot of soot and smog. And poor air quality isn’t evenly distributed across the Houston area, according to a 2020 report commissioned by two environmental organizations: the Natural Resources Defense Council and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.
Pollution in the region affects poor households and neighborhoods of color more than others, the report found. Colored residents were exposed to twice as much pollution as white residents. People living in poverty were similarly exposed to 50 percent more pollution than more affluent households, which is an even bigger reason to divert the economy from fossil fuels and petrochemicals. Instead, carbon capture could do the opposite by extending the life of polluting facilities.
Pipelines, including those for CO2, can entail an additional risk. In 2020, a pipeline carrying captured carbon dioxide contaminated with hydrogen sulfide burst near the mostly black community of Satartia, Mississippi. The breach sent at least 45 people to hospital after the city was shrouded in haze. Even unpolluted CO2 in high concentrations is an asphyxiant that can choke airways and even car engines, causing vehicles to stall as people try to get away.
More communities may have to navigate these potential hazards, new and old, as carbon capture hubs begin to emerge in the US. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021 earmarked $12 billion for carbon dioxide capture and storage. Occidental strives to make itself a leader in this arena. The company expects its Texas hub, a project called Bluebonnet, to be operational by 2026, with a capacity to store 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide.