Forward on Climate Rally: We’re Strong Together

Feb 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The National Mall was quiet when I stepped off the 350 Massachusetts bus last Sunday. As the sun rose over the Washington Monument and I was tasked with finding breakfast for eleven of my very hungry peers from Stonehill College, I could not help but feel excited and energized for the day ahead. This was a historic moment. So much is at stake in our fight against climate change.

A few weeks earlier I attended the Keystone XL rally in Portland, ME and I could not believe the crowds- over 1,000 people showed up! I wondered: How many people would show up in DC? You can imagine my excitement as the morning went on and thousands upon thousands of Americans from all across the country gathered on the National Mall. They gathered to hear from environmental leaders like Bill McKibben of 350.org, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). They gathered to stand together, sharing a simple concern. And they gathered to share a simple message with the country: We need to act now, together, on climate change.

As these and several other speakers shared their stories with the 45,000 Americans gathered in front of them, the urgency with which we must address this complex climate change problem was evident. It’s going to take a great deal of effort, time, and some significant behavior change, but the Americans who gathered together on this frigid day are just a few of the millions of us who are ready for some serious legislative action on climate change.

Stonehill students at the Forward on Climate Rally

At times, the crowd roared. They cheered in agreement when it was noted that, “We will never be able to eat money and we will never be able to drink oil.” The emphasis was certainly on the Keystone XL pipeline and President Obama’s ability to stop this project in its tracks. While the cheering was frequent, the signs were funny, and people smiled at the young children running around, the mood was somber as the march began toward the White House.  As the Rev. Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus noted, “We’re fighting for existence.” That day, on the National Mall surrounded by thousands, the fight was alive.

As Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) President John Kassel noted in his blog post on the topic, this type of movement certainly needs strategists, lawyers, and scientists to succeed, but also the “people in the streets, in villages and barrios, on college campuses and in cornfields and in automobile assembly plants.” Due to the excellent organizing of 350 Massachusetts, the Commonwealth sent a sizable and diverse delegation of 7 full buses including 11 of my fellow students and friends from Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

Active in a variety of different ways with sustainability and environmental issues at the College, our group of students were able to secure a grant to cover the costs of trip from our school’s “Green Fund” which awards small grants to groups of students looking to engage in environmental events and make campus a greener place! Needless to say, this was an incredible opportunity and it has energized and inspired all of us to take further action at our school to make a positive environmental difference. Whether this be our ongoing divestment campaign, our work to reduce plastic consumption of water bottles and “to-go” meal containers, or education regarding our composting options in the cafeteria, the Forward on Climate rally proved to all of us that we all share a joint responsibility to work together to fight and seriously address the threat of climate change.

Please join us in this critical fight to preserve and protect our previous environment. Join Conservation Law Foundation. If there’s one lesson learned from the rally, it’s that we must work together. Looking around the mall, you couldn’t help but agree that we’re stronger when we do.

Dark Days Ahead: The Financial Future of Brayton Point

Feb 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Just how much financial trouble is Dominion facing at its 50-year old coal and oil-fired power plant? The prospects are bleak and looking worse. For years, people have assumed that the largest coal-fired power plant in New England could weather any storm, but the numbers show that Brayton Point is facing dark days, and the clouds are not likely to lift.

Brayton Point Capacity Factors from 2007-2012

Today, Conservation Law Foundation released an independent analysis of the financial performance of Dominion Resources’ Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. The report, authored by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, projects a bleak future for the 50-year-old coal-fired facility. Entitled Dark Days Ahead: Financial Factors Cloud Future Profitability at Dominion’s Brayton Point, the report found that the once profitable power plant’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) are plummeting due to a perfect storm of market conditions that are projected to continue at least through the end of the decade.

The report shows that those conditions make it unlikely that Brayton Point will ever recoup its recent $1 billion investment in upgrades to the facility, or return to profitability.

“Brayton Point is looking at losing money for the foreseeable future,” said David Schlissel, who co-authored the report with financial expert Tom Sanzillo. “The market conditions have changed and are continuing to change for old coal plants. There is nothing on the horizon that shows that this power plant will be able to return to financial health; in fact, even the most optimistic scenario shows that Brayton Point cannot produce earnings that would cover its costs and produce a return for equity investors at any time through 2020.”

Sanzillo added, “The forecast for Brayton Point is indicative of what’s happening all over the country. We are seeing the owners of these 50-year-old coal-burning facilities facing do or die decisions about their futures, with hundreds having already announced their plans to retire in the next few years and more going that route every month. Brayton Point’s current experience – bleeding money and owner Dominion Resources having already written off $700 million of its $1 billion investment in upgrading the plant – and its bleak outlook clearly show that continuing to operate this plant doesn’t make economic sense.”

A Perfect Storm of Changing Conditions Sends Earnings Plummeting

The report points to a set of changed conditions that together are putting severe downward pressure on Brayton Point’s earnings, which dropped from $345 million in 2009 to an anemic $24 million in 2012, a decrease of some 93 percent:

• Natural gas prices have declined significantly since 2008 and are expected to remain low for at least the remainder of this decade.
• Wholesale energy market prices have decreased In response to the declining natural gas prices, , meaning reduced revenue for coal plant owners and reduced generation at coal plants like Brayton Point.
• Meanwhile, prices for capacity have been also been declining with a 35% decrease in the price obtained in the Forward Capacity Auction in 2012 as compared to the price for 2010.
• Additionally, energy usage in ISO-NE decreased by 2-3 percent between 2008 and 2012 as a result of the economic downturn and increasing energy efficiency efforts.

Future Profitability is Unlikely

The report provides two extremely conservative scenarios of future performance: an “optimistic scenario,” in which generation from Brayton Point coal Units 1-3 is projected to rise to a 60% capacity factor through the years 2013-2020, and a “less optimistic” scenario, which assumes that the units’ generation will not exceed 40% for any year in the period. In 2012, Brayton Points Units 1-3 operated at an average 16% capacity factor. Thus, the report says, earnings from those units could be much lower than projected in the two scenarios modeled. “In no way have we looked at a ‘worst case’ scenario,” noted Mr. Sanzillo.

In both scenarios, based on forward-looking conditions, the report shows that it is unlikely that future energy market prices, ISO-NE capacity market prices, plant generation and coal prices will lead to earnings high enough to provide its owner with adequate recovery of capital or return on investment. The report’s conclusions are based on projections that show that it is reasonable to expect that for the remainder of this decade, at least:

• Energy market prices in New England will remain low, reflecting continuing low natural gas prices.
• Energy consumption in New England will remain flat while consumption in Massachusetts may decline.
• Bituminous coal prices will increase over time.
• As a result, the generation at Brayton Point Units 1-3 is not likely to reach the high levels of performance achieved by the units through 2009.
• Future New England capacity prices are not likely to increase significantly.

On the longer horizon, from 2020 on, the report points to increasing pressure to place a significant price on carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, and the plant’s age, as additional factors that will likely weigh on the plant’s earnings.

N. Jonathan Peress, VP and director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program, commented, “Brayton Point, like many other old coal plants in New England and around the country, is at a tipping point. Dominion has already made a losing investment in trying to make this plant viable beyond its useful life. Now, Dominion and its shareholders need to decide whether to keep pumping money into Brayton Point with little chance of a return, as this analysis clearly shows, or to let it go. This report provides compelling evidence for the Town of Somerset, which has been seeing its tax revenue from the plant decline in recent years, to begin planning for Brayton Point’s retirement, and a healthier future for that community in all respects.”

 

“Forward on Climate” Movement, Fully Ready, Leaves Station

Feb 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

New England, I'm pleased to say, was well represented at the climate rally in DC this weekend.

“People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.”  Curtis Mayfield.

Before 50,000 committed supporters, from many states and nations and braving frigid wind-chill temps, Bill McKibben announced on Sunday that all of the work he has done for the last 25 years has been in hopeful anticipation of that moment. The moment when the Climate Movement actually took off.

It certainly felt like a fully loaded train with a big head of steam, on a long journey. It was full of people who have gotten more than ready for the trip, and it was a wide-open, broad and inclusive group. Emcee’d by the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus, speakers ranged from Van Jones (author, former Obama aide and Pres. of Rebuild the Dream) to Chief Jacqueline Thomas (a First Nation Chief in British Columbia) to Maria Cardona (Founder, Latinovations) to Michael Brune (Sierra Club Exec. Director) and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The crowd was the same – young and old, people of all colors, people of faith and non-believers, northerners, southerners, mid-westerners and westerners, people walking and in chairs.

New England, I’m very pleased to say, was well represented, including large delegations from VT, NH and MA (and I’m sure from RI, ME and CT, but I didn’t find them in the large crowd), and topped off by a rousing address from Senator Whitehouse.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) delivering a rousing address to the crowd.

As Rev. Yearwood put it, “we’re fighting for existence.”

That is not an understatement. Climate models (increasingly showing their accuracy over time, if not underestimation of warming effects) show that unchecked, increasing warming will render large parts of the planet uninhabitable by mammalian life within the next few centuries. If the greater good of humanity (and other species) is not our polar star now, we are failing in our jobs as human beings: to paraphrase Curtis Mayfield again, there is no room among us “for those who would hurt all mankind, just to save [their] own.”

To address a problem that large, it takes a movement. Kudos to Bill McKibben and 350.org, Michael Brune and the Sierra Club, and all of the other groups that have organized, coalesced and launched this train. History will remember them well.

This movement needs to support savvy, well-planned and strategic actions. Sunday’s rally was wisely focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, over which President Obama has unique discretion, under applicable law. While the facts are clear on this one (James Hansen: “game over” for climate if KXL gets built), it is a hugely political game. Circling the White House, calling the President out on his recent commitments to act on climate, playing the political game as it is played, is needed for this vital decision.

But not all vital actions on climate change are like that. We certainly need people in the streets, in villages and barrios, on college campuses and in cornfields and in automobile assembly plants. This is the lifeblood of the movement. But we also need lobbyists and lawyers, economists and highly focused activists, scientists and doctors and investment analysts and progressive regulators – all working the system that shapes our economy.

Shutting down New England’s coal plants, for example, will not happen by marching alone. There is nobody who can do that with the stroke of a pen, as the President can on KXL. Rather, there are many skirmishes and battles to be fought, against extremely entrenched interests who will only succumb when faced with final, non-appealable orders, or when it’s clear they’ll lose more money than their shareholders will accept. The same is true for many fights in the climate campaign: ensuring that any transmission for clean energy is built on the right terms, guarding against overbuilding natural gas infrastructure, fully and properly regulating any fracking activity that is deemed acceptable, adjusting energy markets so that clean energy is favored and dirty energy is disfavored, rebuilding our communities so people don’t need cars as much and can live healthier lives, and many, many more.

“Forward on Climate” is the charge. All the rest is commentary, so to speak. But the commentary – as the Talmudic story goes – is where the work is. We actually move forward by studying and sweating the details, and it takes a long, sustained effort. We’ve been here before. Equal Protection of the laws – what does it really mean? For almost 150 years we’ve been working that out, and paying for it with blood and hopes, dreams and treasure. And lifetimes of effort. Restoring our planet’s climate to some sort of balance – equitable, healthy and just – is another, long-term struggle.

Please join us for this historic journey. Join Conservation Law Foundation. Join other organizations committed to this pivotal fight. We all need your help. And we’ll need it for generations to come. And for their benefit and very survival. “There’s no hiding place” against what we have wrought.

The Battle to Save the Climate Continues: The Northeastern States Reboot and Improve “RGGI”

Feb 7, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

I was on television the other night talking about the impact of sea level rise and storms on Boston and how the impacts of global warming mean that coastal cities like Boston face very real threats. During that interview, I found myself comparing the process of adapting to a changed climate to finding out the house is on fire and grabbing the cat and the kids and getting out – steps that should be followed by calling the Fire Department in order to save the rest of the house and neighborhood.

The climate equivalent of calling the Fire Department is reducing carbon emissions to head off even worse global warming and the wide gamut of effects that we are feeling and will feel from that phenomenon. On the national level, our problem is that Congress is not sure what kind of Fire Department we should have – and in fact a powerful contingent of folks in Congress refuse to believe in the existence of fire.

But here in the upper right hand corner of the U.S., the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, our state governments have been rolling the big red truck out of the garage and taking action to address the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, a key source of this pollution causing global warming, by capping carbon emissions through the program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”).

Today, February 7, those states (including the New England states of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut) announced an agreement  to strengthen that cap on carbon  from 165 million tons down to 91 million tons (2012 levels).

This step, along with associated refinements to the RGGI program, is an important step toward meeting the climate imperative of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but we temper our applause by clearly noting that more sweeping action will be needed to get there. Listen to the wise words of Jonathan Peress, my colleague and our lead advocate on RGGI from our official release marking this announcement:

“This is a very meaningful step in the evolution of RGGI and a powerful example of how markets can drive solutions to climate change,” said N. Jonathan Peress, VP and director of CLF’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program. “Over the past four years, the RGGI program has proven that putting a price on carbon emissions and using the revenues to expand energy efficiency and clean energy as part of our mix is a formula that works. The program refinements announced today will further accelerate the ongoing transition away from dirty and inefficient fossil fuel power plants to meet our energy needs. Once again, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states have demonstrated a path forward for others areas of the country.”

RGGI, the nation’s first market-based cap and trade program requires power plants to hold permits, known as “allowances,” for each ton of CO2 they release into the atmosphere. Revenue from the sale of these allowances is reinvested in energy efficiency programs that reduce costs for businesses and make the states more competitive.

Peress continued, “We applaud the New England states for supporting and strengthening RGGI as an important tool in their toolkits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing a clean energy economy. The RGGI program has proven that carbon cap-and-trade programs can reduce carbon pollution while contributing to economic growth and prosperity. However, state leaders still have much to do to meet the emissions reductions levels dictated by science and our understanding of what it will take for our region to thrive in the face of climate change. Today’s action to strengthen the regional electric power plant cap-and-trade program is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.”

The new cap level locks in emission reductions achieved to date, and continues to drive additional reductions through 2020. Since it was launched in 2009, economic experts say the increased energy efficiency that RGGI is driving has been generating greater rates of economic growth in each participating state.

During the years (nearly a decade) since RGGI was first proposed, much has changed. Emissions have continued and we have moved closer and closer to climate disaster, Congress has considered and failed to pass (despite success in one chamber) a comprehensive climate bill, international negotiations on a climate treaty have faltered. But it hasn’t been all bad news: states, including RGGI states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, have adopted legal requirements for climate action and California has moved forward with its own similar program.

When we began the RGGI adventure, we knew that while action would be necessary on the national and global level, the states and regions were the best forum to really take action immediately and effectively. That strategy has paid off in many ways, including the pivotal Supreme Court case brought by Massachusetts and allied states, with support from a host of environmental groups including CLF, that continues to propel forward action by EPA. Now, this decision by the states to turn RGGI up a notch in order to protect the climate and build clean energy and efficiency tells us that this is still the path to travel.

Preparing for the Rising Tide – Across New England

Feb 5, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Boston Harbor Association has a powerful message about the very real threat of sea level rise driven by global warming.  Their report, “Preparing for the Rising Tide”, is a dramatic wake-up call about the fundamental threat to the historic and economic heart of Boston.

The report starts with very solid science that shows how the homes, businesses and cultural institutions (like the New England Aquarium) that sit on the waterfront are now on the edge of entering, and have in some cases already entered, a very real danger zone.  A zone where the flooding and catastrophic damage that Hurricane Sandy brought to the New York region would tear across our coastline – with the prospect of worse to come.  Indeed, had Sandy hit only 5 ½ hours earlier than it did, when tides were high, the floodwaters would have reached Boston City Hall, nearly ½ mile inland from the City’s waterfront. In other words, Boston got lucky compared to New York City and other communities that were brutally whacked by the storm.  And this near miss begs the question:  do we really want to leave the vitality of our coastal communities to chance?

The report provides a few key lessons:

  • Many vulnerable places, like the entrance to the UMass Boston campus, key MBTA stations like the one at the New England Aquarium and sections of waterfront buildings like the Long Wharf Marriott are in very real danger, today, from the severe storms that are becoming an unfortunate, and all too frequent, visitors to the Northeast.
  • Indeed, some of these vulnerable places would have suffered very real and painful damage if Sandy had slightly changed course and struck Boston instead of New York, or if Sandy had arrived just a few hours earlier.
  • As climate change continues to worsen due to the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, a build-up that grows a little bit every day, the likelihood of a severe flooding event increases. In a very real way the march of time is our enemy here – with each passing year, as we continue to pump enormous quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the chance of a catastrophic flooding event grows.
  • Addressing this fundamental problem will require an integrated approach that reaches across all aspects of society, the economy and government – fundamentally transforming the way we plan, use our land and water resources, build, travel, manage our buildings and use energy – in order to make our communities more resilient and able to handle inundation and other impacts from the changing climate but also to reduce the emissions that are causing the problem in the first place.

In other words, while it remains critically important to tackle the root causes of climate change by reducing energy waste and cleaning up our energy supply, that’s not enough any longer. The emissions we produce today from driving our cars and heating and lighting our buildings will produce effects that are beginning to materialize now – as with Superstorm Sandy – and that will present ever more daunting challenges for future generations. We therefore need to brace for impacts that already have been set in motion. And we must adapt a broad range of infrastructure and institutions to make our communities more resilient to those impacts.

Conservation Law Foundation, as a group with roots in Boston and nearly 50 years of work here, applauds the work of the Boston Harbor Association in preparing and releasing this Report.  As a regional organization that works across New England, we recognize that the Report reflects an absolutely vital case study that provides guidance for planning and preparations in Massachusetts’ largest city, while also providing an example of the kind of sober analysis and planning that needs to unfold from Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coastline to the frigid waters of Downeast Maine.

This Report is a reminder that we must act now to protect our communities from the harm that has already been done – and we need to act on emissions reductions to prevent even worse and more catastrophic harm beyond the massive flooding outlined in TBHA’s chilling maps.   This is the mandate of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act that has been on the Commonwealth’s books since 2008. Having had the foresight to enact this law the question becomes whether we here in Massachusetts will have the courage to truly implement it.  TBHA’s Report, which looks at both the impacts that are unavoidable and the even worse impacts if massive greenhouse gas emissions continue, provides a compelling reminder of the  consequences of inaction.

From Off the Coast of Massachusetts: A Cautionary Tale About Natural Gas Infrastructure

Jan 30, 2013 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The front page of the Boston Globe last week presented a powerful, timely and cautionary tale about  two liquefied natural gas terminals  that sit off the coast of Gloucester and Salem. Those terminals are the tangible reminder of a massive push undertaken by energy industry insiders to build such terminals.  The intensity of that push, which began to build around 2002, becoming most intense during the 2004  to 2007 period and then petering out in the years since, contrasts sharply with the reality described in the Globe article: that those two offshore terminals have sat idle for the last two years.

That push to build LNG import facilities, which was such a mania in energy industry circles circa 2005, yielded some crazy ideas, like the proposal to hollow out a Boston Harbor Island and the infamous Weavers Cove project in Fall River. The offshore terminals, while the least bad of those proposals, reflected short sighted thinking detached from careful regional planning.  Both in terms of the need for these facilities and design decisions like regulators not forcing the projects to share one pipeline to shore instead of (as they did) twice disturbing the marine environment to build two duplicative pieces of infrastructure.

Today, the hue and cry is no longer about LNG, instead we are bombarded with impassioned demands for more natural gas pipelines as well as more measured discussions of the need for “smart expansions”. Will we have the collective intelligence to be smarter and more careful this time? Will the permitting process force consideration, as the law requires, of alternatives that make better use of existing infrastructure and pose less risk to the environment and the wallets of customers? Fixing natural gas leaks and becoming much more efficient in our use of gas is a key “supply strategy” that needs to be on the table and fully examined before committing to new pipelines.

And as it so often is, the overarching issue here is protecting future generations by addressing the climate issue. Science and prudent energy analysis, makes it clear that we need to put ourselves on a trajectory to end the burning of fossil fuels, including natural gas by the middle of this century. Given this reality every proposal to build massive and long-lived facilities to import more of those fuels must be viewed with great skepticism.

Tar Sands in Vermont? No Way!

Jan 29, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of someones.life @ flickr.com

I joined with residents of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom today and fellow environmental colleagues to protect Vermont from the devastation of tar sands oil.

We filed a legal action to ensure Vermonters have a say over any proposal to move tar sands through Vermont. See press release here.

The request asks that the increasingly imminent proposal to move tar sands through an existing Northeast Kingdom pipeline be subject to state land use (Act 250) review. See request here.

Tar sands oil poses unique risks to the many natural treasures of the Northeast Kingdom and also imposes extreme climate change risks.

Tar sands oil is a gritty tar-like substance that produces far more emissions than conventional oil. The vastness of the tar sands reserves in Western Canada means that using tar sands oil delays efforts to move towards cleaner energy supplies, and sends us backwards on climate change.

As James Hansen, a leading climate scientist has said, the exploitation of tar sands on mass will be, “game over” for the climate.

Already there are requests to move tar sands east from Alberta to Montreal. The only realistic way to move it beyond Montreal to the deep ports it needs for transportation is through the Portland Montreal Pipeline which passes through Vermont.

There has already been one spill in this old pipeline in Vermont. A spill of tar sands oil – which is much harder to clean up – would be devastating.

Our filing requests that any plans to use the pipeline for tar sands oil be reviewed though Vermont’s land use development law – Act 250 – to protect our land, water and air resources threatened by this dirty fuel .

Natural Gas Leaks: A Risky Business In Need of a Fix

Jan 3, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

A few weeks ago, Springfield, MA, was rocked by a natural gas explosion that destroyed a building, ruined a city block, and was hailed as a miracle because no lives were lost.

The pipelines that lie below our communities, always out of sight, came suddenly came into focus. The explosion reminded us of the sobering reality that our streets are not always safe. Despite smart investments in energy efficiency and new energy technologies in New England, when it comes to natural gas, whose infrastructure is among the oldest in the nation, we have been reluctant to prioritize investment in replacing and repairing the pipes and valves that we rely upon not only to heat and power our homes, but to keep us safe.  When it comes to natural gas efficiency and investment, there is much more we can do – so much more.

We need to improve safety, increase efficiency, and reduce the risk to communities and to our planet. It is my belief, as well as that of my colleagues here at CLF, that we can and should make our communities healthy and safe from the unnecessary risk of explosions from old and leaky pipelines. This is vital, for two reasons.

It’s vital because methane, the major component of natural gas, is 25 times more potent as a global-warming causing gas than CO2. In a year that has broken so many temperature records, and in an age when climate is showing the signs of human distortion, we are constantly reminded of the strain we are placing on our global ecosystem. It is a strain we need to urgently reduce.

It is also vital to replace and fix pipes leaking natural gas because it is so combustible. Springfield reminded us of this fact. So too did the explosions that that rocked San Bruno, California in 2010, Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2011, and Gloucester, MA in 2009, and most recently, Sissonville, West Virginia, to name only a few. These explosions are reminders of the serious care and attention that our natural gas infrastructure needs. If we fail to provide them with that care, we gamble with our safety, and with our lives, as this image from the San Bruno explosion vividly shows.

As my colleague Shanna Cleveland recently said, “The need for action is particularly acute in Massachusetts where over one-third of the system is considered ‘leak-prone’—made up of cast iron or unprotected steel pipe.” The leaks in Massachusetts are so significant that the gains by efficiency programs put in place by Massachusetts regulators are disappearing into thin air. A report released by CLF by that name (Into Thin Air, available to download for free here) documents how these leaks, known as “fugitive emissions,” are being borne not by the utilities, or by the regulators, but by consumers. Utilities pass the cost of lost gas onto ratepayers to the tune of $38.8 million a year. Here’s an infographic from that report:

Another report by Nathan Phillips of Boston University combines Google Earth and research into a compelling visualization of just how prevalent these leaks are.

Like the explosion in Springfield, Nathan’s map documenting the 3,356 separate natural gas leaks under the streets of Boston reminds us that, as we walk or drive down the street, we are often driving through an invisible cloud of natural gas leaking from aging pipes. If you are like me, to accept the avoidable risk of a predictably volatile gas is deeply unsettling.

With the exuberance for cheap, domestic natural gas on the rise, proposals for new massive interstate pipelines are in the works. Houston-based Spectra, a natural gas pipeline company, is proposing a $500 million expansion for Massachusetts alone. Before we go down that route, I would like to make three simple suggestions.

1) Whether the natural gas industry ever delivers on its claim of being more environmentally friendly than coal or oil depends on how well natural gas infrastructure addresses leaks. We develop more accurate tools for assessing the greenhouse gas emissions from pipelines.

2) Not only is investment in new pipelines and power plants expensive, but it comes with serious and lasting environmental consequences whose costs are too often discounted or ignored.  Before we blindly rush ahead with investments to expand, we need to look closely at the full range of costs.

3) Finally, we would do well to remember the lessons we have learned so well about the environmental and financial benefits of looking to efficiency first. Efficiency, both in the traditional sense of reducing our use of natural gas, and in the sense of maximizing the efficiency of our existing natural gas infrastructure by replacing outdated infrastructure and repairing leaks will reduce risk, reduce costs, reduce environmental impacts and put people to work throughout the region.

As the explosions in San Bruno, Gloucester, Allentown, and Springfield have reminded us, this is about the safety of our communities. We should not let promises of short-term profit in new projects trump both the near-term risk of thousands of leaks and the long-term sustainability of this region and stability of our climate.

Ignoring leaky natural gas infrastructure is risky business. Let’s fix what we have, and maximize our efficiency gains, before aggressively expanding. We’ll be more sustainable, and safer, that way.

 

Storm Clouds Gather Over Brayton Point

Dec 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Frank C. Grace, www.trigphotography.com

Frank C. Grace, www.trigphotography.com

Coal-fired power is dying, not only across the nation, but across New England as well.  The region’s coal-fired power plant fleet has started to succumb to the costs of operating a coal-fired dinosaur in the age of energy efficiency, growing renewable electricity generation, and–for now–low natural gas prices.

Predominantly coal-fired Brayton Point Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, is the state’s largest single source of carbon emissions (producing over 6 million tons in 2010). Another harmful pollutant emitted by Brayton Point is particulate matter, which is measured daily by monitors that continuously check the opacity of the soot coming out of the plant’s smokestack. Brayton has been violating their limits for emitting that soot, and failing to monitor their emissions of several other harmful pollutants. Yesterday, CLF filed a notice of intent to sue Brayton’s current owners, Dominion Resources, for those violations. CLF’s upcoming lawsuit is just the latest in a growing list of bad news for Dominion and Brayton Point.

As New England’s other coal plants started to close or teeter on the edge of closure, Brayton Point Station was expected to be the last coal plant standing in the region. It is New England’s largest coal-fired power plant, and in the past decade its current owners, Dominion Resources, sank over $1 billion in pollution control upgrades into the behemoth. While Brayton Point does not have the kind of legal protection from market realities that PSNH exploits to prop up its dirty old coal generation in New Hampshire, many had assumed that Brayton Point was well-positioned to survive in the changing power generation landscape.

source: EPA and ISO-NE data

But the relentless pressure of low natural gas prices and the costs of starting up and operating an enormous coal-fired power plant have begun to affect every corner of the coal generation market in New England, and Brayton Point has not been spared. The plant’s “capacity factor,” which reflects the amount of power the plant generated compared to the amount of power it could have generated if used to its full potential, has taken a nosedive over the past three years. A plummeting capacity factor means that it is a better economic choice for a plant’s owners to keep it idle most of the time than to operate.

Dominion Resources, clearly, has seen the writing on the wall for coal in New England. After signing a binding agreement to cease coal operations at Salem Harbor Station as a result of CLF’s lawsuit against that plant, Dominion sold the Salem plant earlier this year. Following closely on the heels of the Salem sale, the company put Brayton Point on the market in September. While Dominion is marketing Brayton as a modern coal-fired power plant due to its recent billion-dollar pollution control investments, UBS recently assessed [PDF] the value of those investments (and the plant itself) at zero.

Brayton Point’s plummeting capacity factor and bleak sale prospects reflect both the current power of low natural gas prices and the weakness of these old, out-dated coal plants.  That trend will continue as the New England energy market continues to move forward with better integration of efficiency, conservation and renewable generation. Dark clouds are rising over Brayton Point. In the meantime, CLF and our partners will work diligently to hold the Brayton Point power plant accountable for producing its own dark clouds of pollution in violation of the law.

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