This story was originally published Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action. 

A proposal that would allow industries to permanently stash climate-polluting carbon dioxide beneath U.S. Forest Service land puts those habitats and the people in or near them at risk, according to opponents of the measure.

Chief among opponents’ concerns is that carbon dioxide could leak from storage wells or pipelines and injure or kill people and animals, as well as harm the trees in the forests and their habitat, said Victoria Bogdan Tejeda, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

“There are enough broad-ranging concerns with this rule that this isn’t the time to move forward and experiment when the consequences are so high,” said Bogdan Tejeda.

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In 2020, a carbon dioxide pipeline ruptured in Mississippi, sending 49 people to the hospital. 

The debate about the proposal in the U.S. comes as the capture and storage of carbon to mitigate climate change was one of the talking points at the U.N. COP28 climate summit in Dubai. 

Concentrations of the gas, which is odorless and heavier than oxygen, can also prevent combustion engines from operating. Bodan Tejeda, of the Center for Biological Diversity, worries that people even a mile or two from a carbon dioxide leak could start suffocating and have no way to escape.

Proponents of the proposal, however, say storage can be managed safely, and such regulatory changes are needed to meet the nation’s climate goals. 

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A man in jeans, a tee shirt and hard hat walks through high grass in a pine forest.
Forest technician Jacob Floyd walks through Palustris Experimental Forest, part of the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana in October 2023. Preston Keres / USDA Forest Service

“The geologic storage of CO2 beneath federal lands offers a significant opportunity to catalyze a domestic carbon management industry that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating and maintaining high-paying jobs,” said Jessie Stolark, executive director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a nonpartisan collaboration of more than 100 companies, unions, and conservation and environmental policy organizations.

Capturing carbon either from industrial processes that burn fossil fuels, or directly from the air, and storing it permanently underground is considered necessary to stave off the worst impacts of climate change under several scenarios. But not all underground spaces can permanently hold the carbon, which is injected hundreds of feet underground. So developers have been in a land grab of sorts in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere for suitable underground so-called pore space. 

Jim Furnish, a retired U.S. Forest Service deputy chief who consults on forestry issues, said he was startled by the proposal. He said it’s a reversal of historic Forest Service policy that only allows temporary use of forest service lands, usually for five to 20 years. 

More broadly, the measure would “provide a powerful incentive to continue to burn fossil fuels,” Furnish said. “It’s the opposite of a virtuous cycle.” 

Stolark says unless federal authorities provide clarity for carbon storage on federal lands, which comprise 30 percent of all U.S. surface lands, the nation will not be able to meet 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets. 

The Forest Service manages about 193 million acres in the United States. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 130 million acres of suitable carbon storage is under federal land, including the Forest Service.

A closeup of a broken pipe in a hole.
A ruptured carbon dioxide pipeline near Satartia, Mississippi, in 2020. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

The Forest Service said the November 3 proposal would allow it to evaluate such permanent storage requests; it is not currently considering any specific proposals to store carbon under its lands. A spokesperson said the agency previously received and denied applications for underground carbon storage on two forests in the South, an epicenter for carbon capture and storage proposals.

Any such project would have to follow U.S. environmental laws, the service said. The Environmental Protection Agency would regulate the wells under its underground injection well program. 

If the rule is finalized, disruptions to forests would begin long before any carbon dioxide was piped underground, said June Sekera, an economist and policy researcher at Boston University and The New School who has been studying carbon capture. 

Drilling rigs and heavy equipment would be brought into forests to evaluate whether the spaces under the forests were suitable for carbon storage. Trees would have to come down to make way for that equipment, and many more trees would likely be felled to make way for the pipelines. Infrastructure for the injection wells would be permanent, she said.

“All of the other recreation and human uses of these forests are at odds with this type of use because this type of use is dangerous,” said Laura Haight, U.S. policy director at Partnership for Policy Integrity, which focuses on forest issues.

Almost 200 carbon capture and storage projects have been proposed in the United States in the last five years, many spurred in the past year by increased incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act intended to address global warming. 

The Forest Service, when contacted, did not respond to a question of how those incentives of up to $180 per ton of carbon stored would be handled if the carbon were injected under federal lands.

About 140 groups have asked the Forest Service to extend the 60-day public comment period on the proposal, which now ends January 2, for another 60 days. It would be, according to the groups, the first time the United States would permit CO2 to be injected under federal lands. 

U.S. Representative Jared Huffman, a Republican from California, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries, said he also intends to call for an extension of the comment period. Huffman called the measure a “sacrifice of public lands as a life support for fossil fuels.”