EPA's Proposed Rule on Geologic CO2 Sequestration

Today the EPA published a proposed rule on the Geological Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide. The decision to proceed with the rulemaking was made late last year, in answer to repeated calls by NRDC and other stakeholders to define appropriate regulatory requirements.

The proposed rule will not legitimize or enable sequestration as a new practice. Subsurface injection of CO2 is currently allowed through existing well classes under the Underground Injection Control Program. The EPA has repeatedly stated this, pointing to Class I, Class II or Class V wells as a way to permit projects at present. However, these well classes date back many years and were never written with geologic sequestration of CO2 in mind. It was pretty much uniformly assumed that a new rule would apply to sequestration projects in the future, begging the obvious question of what the regulatory requirements would be, what operators would have to comply with, and whether the rule would be protective enough of human health and environmental resources. The new proposed rule with its Class VI designation answers these questions by setting aside a whole new well class for sequestration, and clarifying those regulatory requirements.

As is often the case in rulemakings, the devil is in the detail and, over the 120 day comment period, stakeholders will no doubt be screening the rule diligently. No doubt, some parts will be well-crafted while some will need refining. However, several things stand out at first sight in the rule's architecture that embody sound thinking and sequestration best practice.Among those are:

  • Specific requirements for a comprehensive characterization before deeming a sequestration site as appropriate for injection
  • Monitoring requirements for tracking the behavior and location of CO2 in the subsurface, validating its confinement, or detecting unwanted behavior early to allow for corrective action
  • The need to compile a monitoring plan, a site care and closure plan and a remedial response plan prior to obtaining a permit
  • The requirement to update these plans, along with reporting parameters, the Area of Review and other quantities as monitoring and operational data becomes available
  • A requirement for a continuous feedback loop between monitoring and modeling, whereby one updates the other in order to optimize operations and refine simulations
  • A criterion for site closure that is not based on the mere passage of a set number of years, but on the finding that drinking water is not endangered and that the project meets the necessary performance standards

Some of these design elements might appear obvious or expected. Nonetheless, the fact that the proposed rule utilizes them is a significant development, and a very positive one. Next comes the task of screening the text word-for-word, and ensuring that it is both workable and protective of human health and environmental resources.

The proposed rule moves us one step closer to a regulatory framework specific to geologic CO2 sequestration. Notably, only a few days ago, Washington State finalized its own rules for geosequestration, while a number of other states are moving in this direction or considering action. Is this good news? Well, sequestration is a needed greenhouse gas reduction technology, one of the "mitigation wedges". It is not the preferred wedge, nor is it the cheapest. Improving energy efficiency and tapping our renewable energy potential should come first. But the country and the world needs all the tools we have at our disposal, and sequestration is one of those. A sound regulatory framework for sequestration will ensure that the technology results in much needed emission reductions while safeguarding human health and the environment.

The fact that the EPA and the states are writing down detailed requirements on how to regulate CO2 injection also reinforces a position that NRDC along with industry players such as BP, NRG, Rio Tinto, Tensaka and others have been arguing: that CCS is not an untested technology that needs to be "proven up" and that will be available at some point in the future, but rather one that is available to begin deployment today if the regulatory and economic gaps are addressed. This is the topic for a future blog. Suffice to say here that, those in the industry who have been arguing that CCS needs to be "proven up" and that it will be several years before it can be usable, are the same ones who have been calling for a go-slow approach on climate legislation and, strangely enough, some of the same ones who are doggedly trying to portray coal as "clean".