Deep in the wooded hills above Satartia, Mississippi, on an evening after weeks of rain, a patch of soaked ground collapsed.
That was all it took.
With a tremendous roar, the two-foot-wide Delhi pipeline ruptured, blowing a 40-foot crater into the side of a slope. A cool fog drifted downhill from the blast site and rolled across the highway into the tiny town.
Jerry Briggs, fire coordinator for neighboring Warren County, was quickly on the scene. He assumed the pipe was spewing natural gas; such pipelines crisscross the region. But as his team rushed to help the victims, what they saw didn’t make sense.
People were acting like “zombies,” dazed and walking in circles or gazing back blankly as responders yelled for them to evacuate. Others convulsed, drooling, as panic-stricken family members called 911.
In the end, 49 people were hospitalized. Some still have symptoms and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It wasn’t until about an hour after the February 2020 explosion that the pipeline operator, Denbury Inc., informed first responders what the pipeline carried: highly compressed carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is nontoxic, but it can be dangerous in dense concentrations. As the plume spread through town, it had displaced oxygen, causing mass asphyxiation.
As the plume spread through town, it had displaced oxygen, causing mass asphyxiation.
Now the specter of the Satartia leak looms large for the 130,000 residents of Ascension Parish, Louisiana, as they brace for a tremendous buildout of similar carbon pipelines. After President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law last year, developers are sprinting for billions of dollars of federal tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS: a process in which industrial plants capture a portion of the carbon dioxide emitted from their smokestacks and then inject it deep underground for storage.
CCS technology has never worked as intended at commercial scale, but that hasn’t slowed the carbon capture boom, particularly in Louisiana, now home to roughly a third of the country’s planned CCS projects. Of those, about a third will be built in Ascension Parish, including what would be the world’s largest. Air Products, a Pennsylvania-based industrial gases and chemical company, is investing $4.5 billion to capture millions of tons of highly compressed carbon dioxide from an ammonia plant in Darrow, Louisiana, pipe it about 35 miles east, and inject it underneath Lake Maurepas.
The project has been met with widespread resistance from Ascension Parish residents and sparked alarm from pipeline safety experts, who say that development has rushed ahead of federal regulations, posing major health risks for front-line communities. And while proponents of CCS have framed the technology as part of the solution to the climate crisis, critics caution that it is a way for corporations to greenwash their image and receive taxpayer funds, all while continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels.
The battle currently playing out in Ascension Parish is a microcosm of issues only set to intensify as an increasing number of legislators embrace carbon capture’s unproven promises.
“We’re already facing devastating climate impacts,” said Jane Patton, a senior campaigner with the Center for International Environmental Law. “What we are facing if we give into the myth and the distraction of carbon capture and storage is more devastation and catastrophe.”
“A Precious Resource”
In an effort to help other first responders prepare for the influx of carbon pipelines, Briggs visited Ascension Parish in April. Kaitlyn Joshua, an Ascension Parish resident, had organized a meeting between Briggs and several local fire chiefs. Joshua also organizes for environmental and racial justice with Earthworks, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy transitions and opposes the Air Products CCS project.
As one of the only fire chiefs in the country with firsthand experience responding to a CO2 pipeline leak, Briggs has critical knowledge absent from most standard safety training.
He anticipated sharing recommendations based on his experience with the Satartia blast, including the purchase of certain equipment, like gas meters that measure CO2.
But shortly before the meeting, Ascension Parish Safety Director James LeBlanc canceled it.
”We don’t use Parish-owned volunteer fire departments for political functions,” LeBlanc wrote in an email to The Intercept. He did not respond to questions about why he categorized the public safety meeting as political.
Briggs was taken aback by local officials’ resistance. “My role is training and education,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m not coming to bash a pipeline. I’m coming to educate your fire department on what we encountered.” He said such public safety sessions between different fire stations are common, and he’s never encountered similar interference.
The meeting was eventually held at Joshua’s father-in-law’s restaurant, where just one chief attended. The chief who did attend, Briggs recalled, expressed appreciation for his counsel — his station didn’t own a gas meter that could detect CO2.
Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, expressed alarm that public safety officials would brush off Briggs’s efforts, given the risks and hazards particular to carbon pipelines and their current underregulation.
“That is the opposite of what we should be doing,” Caram stressed. “Those first responders in Satartia, they’re not activists. They are heroes. … That is a precious resource, to have that direct experience.”
Mark Harrell, director of the office of homeland security and emergency preparedness in neighboring Livingston Parish, said their emergency responders are holding off on seeking safety training and preparation until Air Products has finalized the specifics of their plans. His office has been in contact with Air Products, he said, and he plans to ask the company to donate any necessary equipment.
“Once we begin preparing for operations, Air Products will work closely with applicable emergency response agencies to help ensure proper training and implementation,” Air Products spokesperson Arthur George wrote in an email to The Intercept.
Most pipelines run through rural areas, where fire stations receive less funding and are frequently short staffed or all volunteer. It’s not uncommon for budget-strapped stations in rural regions to depend on chemical industry donations to be sufficiently equipped.
Industry and government are tightly intertwined in Ascension Parish, where officials have said the chemical industry comprises “almost half” of the budget. Air Products has been granted tens of millions of dollars in tax exemptions for the Ascension Parish plant, as well as a grant of up to $5 million from the state.
One video from the Ascension Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit primarily funded by public appropriations, purports to highlight the oil and gas industry’s “commitment to sustainability.” It features LeBlanc alongside Ascension Parish Council Chair Chase Melancon, who tells viewers that the chemical industry goes “above and beyond to preserve our paradise.” The video cites a 71 percent reduction in emissions in the state; industrial greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased over the last two decades.
Melancon is himself an employee of OxyChem, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, which is building a CCS hub in Livingston Parish. According to 2022 financial disclosure filings, Melancon received an annual salary of more than $100,000 as a production supervisor at OxyChem’s Ascension Parish plant — at least five times his councilmember salary.
Relying on the chemical industry for accurate information and adequate safety preparations is a risky game, as evidenced by the events of the Satartia leak. A Department of Transportation investigation found that Denbury’s failure to inform first responders about the “nature of the unique safety risks of the CO2 pipeline” hindered the emergency response, leaving first responders to “guess the nature of the risk.”
In a 2021 statement to HuffPost, a Denbury spokesperson wrote, “Denbury has cooperated fully with all federal, state, and local agencies who responded to the incident. The federal agency charged with regulating the pipeline continues its review and investigation of the incident, and Denbury continues to cooperate fully with their efforts.” This April, after concluding the investigation, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued the second-largest fine in the agency’s history against Denbury, noting that Denbury’s most critical shortcoming was the failure to train, advise, or notify emergency responders.
The Department of Transportation report stressed the need to ensure emergency responders are briefed on best practices in the event another CO2 release occurs — just as Briggs aimed to do.
Briggs stressed that his sole concern was public safety. He isn’t a “treehugger,” he said, nor an environmental activist. “I’m an activist for human life.”
“Tickled to Death”
Public officials have strong financial incentives for bulldozing forward with CCS projects in Louisiana, where chemical companies are investing a staggering $80 billion in pending projects, almost a third of the state’s gross domestic product.
The Air Products CCS project in particular has been met with broad public opposition, and several bills aimed at stopping or slowing CCS projects were introduced in Louisiana’s spring legislative session.
“They said, ‘We’re going to sell the second-largest lake in Louisiana over a Zoom call.’”
During a hearing over one of the bills, a resident pointed out that the one public hearing for the Air Products project was held over Zoom just weeks after 2021’s devastating Hurricane Ida, when many residents were still displaced. Caleb Atwell of the Lake Maurepas Preservation Society testified, “They said, ‘We’re going to sell the second-largest lake in Louisiana over a Zoom call.’”
Some of the bills aimed to simply slow the pace of the project and uncover more public information: One, for example, would’ve required an environmental impact statement before using the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area to sequester carbon. Another would’ve required that parishes hold a local referendum in order to approve CCS projects.
Industry groups met the opposition with an enormous lobbying campaign. Air Products alone hired 25 lobbyists, paying up to $625,000 for the eight-week legislative session.
None of the bills passed.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency held hearings regarding Louisiana’s application to take over regulatory authority for carbon injection wells, which would allow the state to approve companies’ CCS permit applications much faster. During the session, Ascension Parish resident Ashley Gaignard expressed concern over one private equity firm’s plans to develop carbon storage in her hometown of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, which is predominantly Black and rural. By using the area as a testing ground for CCS tech, she said, “we’re going back to the sharecropper days” of treating Black communities as disposable.
Ascension Parish sits in the infamous corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley,” the largest hotspot of cancer-causing air in the country. The Air Products plant is being built on the site of a former plantation, raising concerns that it will disrupt the graves of enslaved people, whose descendants still live in Ascension Parish.
“Air Products conducted an extensive archaeological survey and historical research,” wrote George, the company spokesperson. “Air Products understands it has a moral duty to investigate and protect key cultural resource sites, and it fully intends to do so.”
Without legal protection, residents have little power to stop projects going up in their own backyard. In 2009, Louisiana quietly ratified model legislation proposed by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission that allows private land to be seized for CCS infrastructure via eminent domain. A 2023 bill that would’ve revoked this authority failed to pass.
During a May legislative committee meeting, Louisiana state Rep. R. Dewith Carrier said he was “tickled to death” about the influx of CCS projects. “I trust these people. … I believe in Occidental Chemical,” he continued. “I’m sure it’s been studied over and over.”
OxyChem is eyeing his small parish of Allen for a $21.5 million carbon sequestration hub.
A Larger Casualty Event?
As CCS projects appear poised to surge across the country, environmental justice advocates allege greenwashing, while experts ring alarm bells over public safety.
Patton, of the Center for International Environmental Law, characterized the development as “a huge onslaught of new projects.”
“Carbon capture is a technology that, while expensive, would allow these companies to continue to pollute,” she said.
Patton added that CCS does not remove other greenhouse gasses, like methane, from emissions, and every CCS effort to date has captured significantly less CO2 than projected. A 2020 legislative audit showed that companies have received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars based on the amount of carbon they have told the IRS they’re sequestering — even when those companies simultaneously report different sequestration amounts to the Environmental Protection Agency.
David Schlissel, a director with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said he is “extremely skeptical about the ability of these projects to capture enough CO2 over the years to make a big dent.”
One study found that projects that produce hydrogen with CCS, like the Air Products venture, emit 20 percent more greenhouse gases than coal.
One study found that projects that produce hydrogen with CCS, like the Air Products venture, emit 20 percent more greenhouse gases than coal.
George said the study’s underlying assumptions were “flawed,” and the new facility will achieve its projected capture rate of 95 percent. This is frequently touted as the capture rate for CCS, but it hasn’t been reliably achieved at scale. Air Products’ previous foray into carbon capture — a demo project built with government funding — achieved an average onsite carbon capture rate of just 36 percent.
Additionally, Caram, of the Pipeline Safety Trust, and other experts warn that development is outpacing federal pipeline regulations, partly because there has been very little CO2 pipeline infrastructure before now.
For example, the steel used in natural gas pipelines is not strong enough to safely transport liquid CO2, posing an increased risk of violent rupture if companies repurpose the pipelines for CCS projects — as at least one company in Ascension Parish plans to do.
“I see the potential with a CO2 pipeline of a larger casualty event that you really don’t see with hydrocarbon pipelines,” Caram said.
At the state level, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources is tasked with establishing safety requirements and approving pipelines. But skeptics point out that the department already fails to keep up with monitoring and plugging thousands of abandoned oil wells across the state and worry they aren’t prepared for this unprecedented buildout.
Air Products is currently conducting tests to determine whether Lake Maurepas is suitable for carbon sequestration; officials from a neighboring parish say this testing has already caused a groundwater well to implode. Earlier this month, Air Products installed a large drilling rig on the lake. If the company proceeds with the permitting process, the project would be the first time carbon is permanently sequestered under a shallow body of water. According to Alex Kolker, a coastal geologist at Louisiana University’s Marine Consortium, the project runs the risk of contaminating aquifers, as sequestered CO2 could leach toxic metals out of the surrounding rocks and into the drinking water.
Those metals could include things like copper, strontium, and “sometimes even radioactive elements like uranium,” explained Kolker. Last month, a study revealed serious issues at two Norway hubs previously touted as success stories for underwater carbon sequestration.
Kolker also worries that natural shifts in the ground could cause Louisiana’s pipelines to rupture, as was the case in Satartia. “We’re still at the very infancy of studying the issue of geohazard risks associated with CCS,” he warned.
Despite these concerns, an oil-backed study from Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative has proposed a 68,000 mile network of CO2 pipelines spidering across the country. The nationwide infrastructure, referenced in the White House’s net-zero strategy plan, would rely on industrial, four-foot-wide pipelines — double the size of the pipe responsible for the Satartia blast.
Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline regulatory adviser who has testified before Congress, voiced grave concerns about these plans.
“Folks, we’re getting ahead of the curve here,” he told The Intercept. “I understand we want to save the world, but, Jesus. Do you have any idea what a rupture force is for something that big? It’d be huge. You’re going to be doing body counts.”
Correction: August 28, 2023
A previous version of this article said that the photo of the hydrochloric acid tanks was taken on the Air Products site, when in fact the tanks were adjacent to the property.