Achieving net-zero emissions by midcentury will require gigaton scale carbon management, including capturing carbon dioxide from smoke stacks (traditional CCUS), as well as directly from the atmosphere (carbon removal), before permanently sequestering it far below the earth’s surface. Fortunately, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) included essential funding for CCUS facilities, DAC Hubs, and carbon storage infrastructure. But as is the case with other forms of energy infrastructure, carbon management projects are now navigating a lengthy permitting process before construction activities can proceed.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program manages the approval process for safe and permanent sequestration of CO2 deep underground, known as “Class VI” permits. In the 13 years since the Class VI program was established in 2010, a total of six permits have been approved, with only two leading to construction and operation. With the passage of the BIL and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the number of Class VI permits pending at EPA has significantly grown—with 169 applications received across 58 projects as of November 9, 2023.
Figure 1: With policy support for carbon management from the BIL and IRA, pending Class VI applications for injecting CO2 underground have exponentially increased at EPA.
EPA is taking steps to improve processing times and transparency for pending Class VI permits, including by releasing a dashboard with projected timelines for permits currently under review and expanding efforts for regulator training, but more needs to be done to ensure timely approvals.
State primary authority, or “primacy,” is the ability for a state to carry out EPA’s authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act in approving a specific type of permit. This approach to processing permits has been used for decades for other classes of permits and has the advantage of leveraging state geologic survey expertise on a state’s unique geology when evaluating a permit application. The UIC program has granted primacy authority for many different classes of wells in 31 states and three territories, but only two states have primacy for Class VI permits today—North Dakota and Wyoming.
As EPA expands staff expertise to process permits at the federal level, state primacy authority can play a complementary role to ensure project developers are not stuck waiting for permit approvals before continuing to develop a carbon management project.
Fortunately, several states: Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and Arizona have taken steps toward primacy approval. Louisiana is the furthest along in the process, with EPA issuing a proposed rule for primacy in April 2023. The rule has been subject to public comment throughout this year and is expected to be finalized in the near future.
It is worth noting that 33% of applications currently under review at EPA are from Louisiana, demonstrating the clear benefit of a dedicated approval system within the Bayou State. If primacy is granted, applicants in Louisiana will have the opportunity to resubmit their permit application for review under the new authority. Some applicants that have undergone significant reviews by EPA may choose to finish through the traditional federal pathway, but other applicants that submitted their application more recently may choose to resubmit through the new state authority.
Figure 2: As of November 9, 2023, Louisiana has 55 out of 169 Class VI applications pending at EPA.
Should Louisiana’s primacy authority be granted, it will be able to focus on those projects within the state and EPA will be able to focus on the rest of the Class VI permits to process them efficiently, without sacrificing environmental safeguards. Other states are eying this opportunity for supporting EPA’s activities, as evidenced by the $48 million in BIL funding awarded to 25 states and tribes earlier this month. Taking a complementary approach to supporting EPA resources for processing Class VI well applications, while also leveraging states with primacy authority, is the path with the pace and ambition necessary to make substantive climate progress.
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