New England’s electric system is at a tipping point, with economic and environmental realities fostering massive change by sending old, coal-fired power plants and other inefficient sources of energy into an irreparable downward spiral. With many of New England’s existing power plants retired or retiring by 2020, we have an imperative to build a well-designed, clean energy infrastructure to serve the region’s needs for the coming decades.
The infrastructure decisions being made now will create the precedent for how New England reduces its greenhouse gas emissions to meet the region’s climate goals – and serve as a model for the rest of the country. Natural gas is helping New England move away from the coal- and oil-burning plants that the region has relied upon for more than half a century, and, if managed correctly, can hasten the region’s transition to clean, renewable energy.
But natural gas infrastructure and extraction methods can impose devastating impacts on communities. They also emit methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. In fact, unlike what its proponents would have us believe, natural gas is not clean; it’s production and use releases significant amounts of the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. In Vermont, for example, a pipeline extension proposal by Vermont Gas would over its lifetime lead to 3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, about the same amount as putting 500,000 more vehicles on the region’s highways. A recently released report by the International Panel on Climate Change shows that methane, which leaks from natural gas pipelines and wells, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than previously thought – with 34 times the heat-trapping intensity of CO2.
CLF recognizes that natural gas has a role to play in New England’s transition from its coal and oil legacy to a clean energy future. However, we must carefully manage that role so that natural gas contributes to rather than overwhelms New England’s efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To effectively leverage natural gas as a bridge to a clean-energy future, any new proposed gas infrastructure must be: subject to thorough analysis that accounts for its long-term climate impacts and is conducted in an open and transparent process; scaled in size to meet the needs identified by the region’s energy regulators; and be subject to conditions that ensure consistency with climate mandates – for example, in the case of a new gas power plant, that it be required to shut down by a certain date and charged with lowering its emissions limits and/or offsets over time.
If we rush to build long-lived infrastructure around natural gas, we risk locking in our region’s dependence on fossil fuels and locking out clean, renewable solutions like solar and offshore wind – and undermining the climate benefits of replacing coal- and oil-fired plants in the first place. We can responsibly use gas as a tool to improve, and not burden, the health, welfare, and safety of New England communities; use it sparingly in a manner that replaces dirtier fuel sources; and as a means to foster, rather than constrain, our ongoing energy-system transformation and long-term decarbonization.