Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date

2019

Center/Program

Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

Abstract

Limiting future temperature increases and associated climate change requires immediate action to prevent additional carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere and lower the existing atmospheric carbon dioxide load. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to remain within the 2oC temperature threshold set in the Paris Agreement, emissions must be reduced to “net zero” by mid-century or shortly thereafter and then go “net negative.” This goal could be advanced through carbon capture and storage (CCS), which involves collecting carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released by power plants or similar facilities and injecting it into underground geologic formations, where it will remain permanently sequestered. The techniques developed for CCS can also be used to sequester carbon dioxide that has been removed from the atmosphere using direct air capture or other negative emission technologies.

To ensure CCS delivers lasting climate benefits, injection sites must be carefully selected to avoid leakage of carbon dioxide. One promising option involves injecting carbon dioxide offshore, into sub-seabed geologic formations comprised of basalt rock, which has been shown to react with carbon dioxide, converting it into an immovable solid and thereby substantially reducing the potential for leakage. This paper explores the legal framework governing offshore CCS in U.S. and Canadian waters. Particular attention is devoted to waters off the west coast, adjacent to Washington State in the U.S. and British Columbia in Canada, where there is a large sub-seabed basalt rock formation (the Cascadia basin) with significant carbon dioxide storage potential.

Neither the U.S. nor Canada has enacted comprehensive legislation specific to offshore CCS, resulting in significant uncertainty as to how future projects will be regulated. Projects may be subject to a patchwork of general laws that were developed for other activities and are often poorly suited to regulating offshore CCS. Indeed, the laws currently prohibit some offshore CCS projects entirely, and impose unnecessarily burdensome restrictions on others. Unless and until these issues are addressed, offshore CCS projects are unlikely to occur in U.S. federal and Canadian waters, despite the potential climate benefits. To realize those benefits, the paper recommends that both the U.S. and Canada enact legislation that deals specifically with offshore CCS, establishing a well-defined framework for the regulation of future projects.

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