If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Take natural gas. Its oft-touted low cost and climate benefits are overrated – reminiscent of the nuclear industry’s promise a few decades ago to provide power that would be “too cheap to meter.”
True, current low gas prices have helped the region close its old and polluting coal and nuclear plants. But simply replacing all our oil, propane and coal use with natural gas will not meet our climate objectives. Using gas instead of oil is like a drug addict replacing heroin with methadone – a step in the right direction, but one that fails to provide the meaningful and long-term recovery that we need.
Vermont, like other states in the region, committed to reduce greenhouse gases 75 percent by 2050. The state’s comprehensive energy plan calls for meeting 90 percent of our power needs with renewable resources by 2050. These are ambitious, necessary and achievable goals.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report again stresses the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The report warns of food shortages and harm from flooding for major population centers, including cities on the East Coast, as a result of climate change.
The IPCC report also determined that methane, the major component of natural gas, is a more potent greenhouse gas than previously thought. Methane has long been understood to have far greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide. The potency of methane breaks down over time. Over a hundred year timeframe, methane is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In a shorter, twenty year timeframe, methane is 84 times more potent. Based on the recent IPCC studies, these numbers are about twenty percent higher than in the previous IPCC report. In terms of climate change, methane leaked into the atmosphere from natural gas pipelines and wells is significantly more damaging than carbon dioxide. As methane is studied more, its impacts seem to be more severe. And there is no question it poses bigger problems in the short term when we need to be doing even more to reduce emissions.
The journal Science also recently reported on studies from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluding that overall methane emissions are up to 50 percent higher than previous accounts. These studies suggest that more methane is leaking from natural gas production and transportation. The recent gas explosion in Harlem, N.Y, and the map of leaks in Boston show the bitter reality of leaks that are too often undetected.
Since most of the natural gas supply comes from sources that use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” we also need to make sure that our use of natural gas is not harming the water supply and environment in communities hosting the gas wells.
It is time for companies, policymakers and regulators to catch up with science. Vermont Gas Systems still seeks approval to expand its operations to serve customers in Addison County, International Paper in New York and eventually Rutland County. The New England Governors have banded together to seek public funding for major new gas pipelines for the region. If built, these projects will put in place long-term fossil fuel infrastructure that is more damaging to our communities and our climate than previously thought.
To use natural gas responsibly, we must diligently measure the long term impacts of this energy source and also put in place requirements that will phase out its use over the timeframe of a few decades.
One model is the recent approval for the Footprint Power gas-fired electric plant in Massachusetts. It will sit at the same location of a closed coal-fired plant. The evaluation of its greenhouse gases did not simply compare it to the old coal plant. Instead, as the result of a settlement with Conservation Law Foundation, the plant developers agreed to binding annual emissions limits and a retirement date of 2050. These measures keep the facility’s operations in line with the Massachusetts greenhouse gas reduction requirements.
Similar requirements should be routine for any new natural gas project in our region. It only makes sense to first carefully evaluate the real climate impacts over the life of the project and compare those to a range of other alternatives. And we should not approve projects that increase polluting greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other alternatives or export to somewhere else the environmental problems from fracking. If any projects do advance, their use must be limited to ensure they actually replace dirtier fuels and to make sure they retire in the timeframe needed to allow us to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.
A version of this article first appeared in the April 13, 2014 edition of the Sunday Rutland Herald / Times Argus