Lab report outlines updates to state’s regulations for carbon capture, storage in effort to achieve neutrality

To reach economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045 or earlier, California will likely have to capture, transport and geologically store tens of millions of tons per year of carbon dioxide (CO2) from large sources and from the atmosphere.

California has an extensive regulatory framework that is rigorous, robust and will safeguard the environment, public health and safety during these activities. However, this framework cannot handle the timely permitting and deployment of sufficient projects to protect the rapidly worsening climate and support achieving the state’s climate goals, according to a report titled "Permitting Carbon Capture & Storage Projects in California" by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

California Executive Order B-55-18 established a goal of achieving carbon neutrality as soon as possible and no later than 2045 and achieving and maintaining net negative emissions thereafter.

Multiple in-depth analyses have shown that to achieve this goal, California will need to both intensify efforts in emission reduction measures and technologies that are already underway and deploy technologies that dramatically reduce existing emissions from large sources and remove carbon from the atmosphere directly.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) refers to a large family of technologies that remove CO2 from large point sources or from the atmosphere directly, transport it (commonly by pipeline, truck, rail or barge) and then store it permanently and securely thousands of feet underground in the same types of rock formations that have held the carbon for millions of years in the form of fossil fuels. Many of the technologies involved are not new, and a sizable array of demonstration and early commercial-scale projects has emerged over the past two or more decades around the world.

“The state cannot rely on the existing regulatory regime to efficiently process a significant enough number of CCS project authorizations to achieve its climate goals,” said LLNL scientist George Peridas, lead author of the report.

CCS is a complex administrative undertaking and has significant regulatory and permitting needs, managed by many state and federal agencies. In addition, negotiations with private parties are likely to be necessary to obtain authorization to site CO2 pipelines and to inject CO2 deep in the subsurface while respecting existing surface and mineral ownership. No CCS projects exist in California today.

“California could obtain faster and larger carbon emission reduction removal while maintaining the robustness and rigor of its environmental review and permitting regime through some simple interventions to existing processes and structures,” Peridas said. “Large reforms are not necessary in the short or medium term, or conducive to achieving these climate benefits.”

CCS projects will need to undergo environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and possibly the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These review processes aim to evaluate whether a project may have significant effects on the environment and whether these can be avoided. CEQA review is a significant undertaking and the principal determinant of a project’s authorization timeline in California and, unlike NEPA, can require mitigation measures.

Among the options the state could utilize to ensure timely and efficient authorization of CCS projects to contribute to its climate goals while still safeguarding public health, safety and the environment are: 

  • Assemble an interagency working group of state, local and federal agencies likely to be involved in CCS project permitting. 
  • Create a clear directive from the administration and/or legislature that unambiguously signals to state agencies the high-priority nature of CCS projects for the state and its climate goals and that calls for thoroughly and efficiently handling permit applications and environmental review. 
  • Assign one agency to act as the central point of contact for CCS project permit applicants, who will function as coordinator, timekeeper and manager for efficient permit processing, and who will interact with developers and stakeholders.

  • Examine the desirability and legal feasibility of assigning a specific CEQA lead agency — from among those likely to have jurisdiction over most CCS projects — to assume this role and specialize in the CEQA process. 

  • Assemble a flow chart with steps for state agencies to follow upon receiving a project application, including intended turnaround timelines for each step. 

  • For all state agencies involved in CCS permitting, secure adequate staff and resources to ensure sufficient expertise, knowledge and personnel availability to process what could be numerous and/or complex permit applications, and to navigate the CEQA process for multi-faceted projects. 
  • Through the legislature, enact a minor technical amendment to the Elder Act, clarifying that the act intends for the Office of the State Fire Marshal to also regulate intrastate CO2 pipeline safety.

  • Through the legislature, clarify pore space ownership, clearly vesting it with the surface owner, and possibly also clarify the relation of the surface estate with the mineral estate. 

For the entire suite of options and more details, see the full report here.

In an effort to gain insight into this report and the "Getting to Neutral: Options for Negative Carbon Emissions in California,report, a special virtual forum presented by LLNL, the Livermore Lab Foundation and the California Council on Science and Technology will take place March 3. The “Carbon Capture and Sequestration in California Regional Insights and Community Attitudes” symposium will feature local, state and industry speakers who will discuss the headway that has been made one year after the "Getting to Neutral" report was released.