Home 2017 Races Why Ralph Northam Should Oppose the Proposed New Gas Pipelines

Why Ralph Northam Should Oppose the Proposed New Gas Pipelines

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by Glen Besa, immediate past director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter

I’m voting for Ralph Northam for a lot of reasons but not for his position (or non-position) on the massive proposed fracked-gas pipelines in Virginia. I oppose the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, as do many Virginians, and I’m not aware of many Democratic Party faithful or independent voters clamoring for either of these projects. If anything, Northam’s failure to take a position opposing the pipelines is going to lose him votes.

So, yes, I’m going to work for and contribute money to Northam’s campaign, but I am also going to do everything I can to convince him to oppose and stop these pipelines. And Terry McAuliffe could do us a lot of good if he switched his position as well. Sure, a governor or gubernatorial candidate might not be able to single-handedly stop a pipeline, but he could try, and he could use his bully pulpit to point out that more fossil-fuel infrastructure is the opposite of what we need as we face the climate crisis. Our efforts to convince both these leaders to switch their position must include facts and political pressure from friends and funders of the Democratic Party. The same strategy applies for Republican opponents of the pipelines, but I’ll leave it to them to apply the political pressure through Republican circles to their party’s nominee.

First, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has proven that governors can stop pipelines using state authority under the Clean Water Act. Our Governor, McAuliffe, or the next one, can make a determination that the harm that would be done to our mountain streams by these proposed projects is unacceptable. That’s a fact.

Second, Northam has an otherwise good environmental record. His opposition to offshore drilling and to uranium mining often put him at odds with Virginia political leaders in both parties, and I’m sure resulted in much grief from Virginia Chamber of Commerce types who are always willing to sacrifice the environment to enrich a few of their more influential members. Consequently, it’s hard to understand his position of neutrality on the pipelines.

There are a lot of compelling environmental and economic reasons why these pipelines don’t make good sense, not the least of which are their climate impacts.

As a native of the Eastern Shore, Northam has been a champion of the Chesapeake Bay since before he entered public office.  His native Eastern Shore and his current home in Norfolk are ground zero for sea level rise driven by climate change.

As Virginia has a much longer history working to clean up the Chesapeake than it has fighting climate change, it may be helpful to draw on an analogy from Bay cleanup efforts to demonstrate why the climate impacts of these two pipelines are unacceptable.

Over the years, scientists studying the Chesapeake have determined that nitrogen and phosphorus are two of the primary pollutants harming the Bay and its tributaries.  Using computer models, these scientists have been able to calculate just how much nitrogen and phosphorus the Bay needs and how much is too much. The modeling has allowed them to established a pollution budget for the Bay.

One regulatory approach to managing the Bay’s pollution budget is TMDLs-Total Maximum Daily Loads-for key pollutants.  This pollution budget tells us just how much pollution the Bay and its tributaries can safely absorb. The TMDLS are then used to allocate the amount of pollution that a sewage treatment plant or an industrial plant can discharge under its permit without harming the Bay.  This approach has resulted in significant reductions in pollutants and a cleaner Bay.

Analogous to the harmful impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus on the Chesapeake Bay, carbon pollution is driving the climate change that threatens our planet. Just as scientists used computer modeling to devise a pollution budget for the Bay, climate scientists have calculated a carbon budget to protect our climate and save the planet.

That budget as reflected in the Paris climate agreement informs countries like the United States that we need to reduce our carbon pollution by 80% by 2050 in order to avoid unacceptable risks of a destabilized climate. To do our part, Virginia needs to be taking steps to reduce our carbon pollution by 80%.

So how do we get there?  Carbon pollution comes from multiple sources but one of the largest is our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity.  Just as the Bay program clamped down on sewage treatment plants and sewer pipe overflows, we need to clamp down on carbon pollution from coal and gas plants and gas pipelines.

The good news is that solar, wind and efficiency can provide the electricity we need. The bad news is that the fossil industry including Dominion Energy, is resisting this critical transition.

Before we turn to the carbon pollution emissions from these pipelines it will be helpful to demonstrate Dominion’s resistance to reducing its carbon from its power plants. Just as the operators of sewage treatment plants resisted limits on their pollution discharges to the Bay, Dominion is using its lobbying clout to block limits on its carbon pollution.

Dominion’s current plan for meeting Virginians’ electricity needs (per its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan) start from a 2017 base level of 40 million tons/year of carbon pollution. The company proposes to actually increase its carbon pollution over the next 25 years by at least 5% and possibly by as much as 34%, not including the new emissions from its pipeline. That’s right, we need to reduce our carbon 80% by 2050, and Dominion actually intends to increase its carbon pollution. That’s irresponsible, and McAuliffe and Northam should say so publicly.

Now let’s look at the carbon emissions (CO2 equivalent factoring methane leakage) associated with these two pipelines. A conservative estimate of the emissions from the Atlantic Coast pipeline is 40.7 million tons/year and as much as 68.4 million tons per year. Using the more conservative estimate of carbon emissions associated with the Atlantic Coast pipeline, Dominion would double its annual total carbon emissions from 40 million tons per year to 80 million tons per year. Additionally, total carbon pollution emissions estimates from the Mountain Valley Pipeline range from 54 to 91 million tons per year.

Recognizing that a responsible climate policy will reduce our total carbon pollution emissions by 80% by 2050, Dominion shows no intention of reducing carbon pollution from its power plants and proposes to double those emissions with the Atlantic Coast pipeline. Then add the 54 to 91 million tons per year associated with the Mountain Valley pipeline. With the pollution from these two pipelines, Virginia is not going to come close to meeting its carbon budget. Had we taken a similar approach to the Chesapeake Bay clean up, the Bay would today be an open sewer.

Governor McAuliffe has proposed to develop a regulatory framework to reduce total carbon emissions from utilities and Northam has pledged to implement that framework. But these two pipelines totally undermine their respective commitments to address climate change.

Bottom line, if Governor McAuliffe and Lt. Governor Northam are serious about addressing climate change we really cannot build these pipelines.

  • Rod Adams

    The assertion that energy needs can be met with just wind, solar and hydro is on shaky ground. The author links to a famous paper by several Stanford University academics as proof to support his contention that those weather dependent sources are all we need.

    Before progressives who value truth and math continue to accept the models and papers produced by Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, it would be worth their time to read Chris Mooney’s recent article in the Washington Post “A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/06/19/a-bitter-scientific-debate-just-erupted-over-the-future-of-the-u-s-electric-grid/?utm_term=.f939716b3ed7

    As Mooney points out, Dr. Jacobson’s model has been carefully analyzed in a peer reviewed paper by a team of 21 energy experts. Those authors found that Jacobson’s work is “riddled with errors” and provides a result that is “demonstrably false.”

    Virginia has indigenous strengths in a clean energy source that needs no pipelines and does not depend on the weather. The four nuclear units now operating in the state provide about one third of the state’s electricity. They don’t consume any fossil fuels and do not produce any air pollution or CO2.

    If you do not like pipelines and you are worried about climate change but you also value affordable and abundant electricity, it’s time to learn more about nuclear energy. It is a power source that has been demonized for many years, often by people who are either unknowing or compensated tools of the fossil fuel industry that would prefer for nuclear energy to disappear and leave it in undisputed dominance of the energy market.

    • I’m all for keeping existing nuclear power plants going, but not building new ones since they’re so expensive. The first priority should be to max out on energy efficiency (aka, “negawatts”), which Dominion Power most certainly hasn’t done.

      • Rod Adams

        Would you change your mind if the people working to improve nuclear plant cost and schedule performance are successful?

        Even if we max out on energy efficiency, we still need reliable power. Even the most efficient appliances, tools, heaters, air conditioners and industrial equipment needs power to operate.

        If we only do “energy efficiency” we will continue operating old, inefficient, highly polluting power sources.

        Energy efficiency advocates point to last 10 years as proof that energy demand isn’t growing as rapidly as it used to, but those same ten years brought us an economy that seemed to only grow profits for the financial sector without producing much in the way of good jobs for all of the rest of us.

        • “Would you change your mind if the people working to improve nuclear plant cost and schedule performance are successful?”

          Yes. If (a big “IF” given debacles like http://www.ajc.com/business/how-much-will-plant-vogtle-new-reactors-really-cost/HBBCCO5R4Uv69R11DJvclM/) the economics of nuclear were competitive with energy efficiency, utility-scale solar and/or onshore wind going forward, I’d be fine with it.

          • Rod Adams

            Many of the challenges at Vogtle and Summer can be attributed to fact that they were the first new nuclear plants in the U.S. started after a 40 year hiatus.

            Entire supply chain had to be rebuilt from scratch. Regulators and inspectors had to be newly trained and took time to come up to speed. An unqualified, but financially savvy construction company bought its way into the supplier partnership.

            Plenty of room for improvement.

          • Perhaps those were aberrations. Any recent examples of (new) nuclear power success stories in the U.S.?

          • Tom d

            Over the past decade, the US has added over 80 GW of wind capacity and 40 GW of solar capacity. Any recent examples of wind and solar deployment that successfully reduced coal, gas, or oil (Hawaii) across a RTO/ISO grid in the US?

          • ” the assumption that the fossil fuel industry has an inherent right to burn as much as they want.”

            That assumption by the fossil fuel industry has been, and continues to be, ruinous. It has to stop.

  • Justin Meighan

    I am a proud democrat and I totally disagree with the position that as Democrat we must subscribe to the “keep it in the ground” energy policy. That position is not practical at all and actually distracts from crafting a comprehensive responsible energy policy that reduces carbon emissions and promotes renewable energy sources.

    Like most people, I hope we get to the day when our energy is 100% from renewable energy sources. However, we are not there yet and natural gas is the best source to bridge us until we get there.

    Even President Obama this past Fall at the Whitehouse South Lawn Panel Discussion acknowledged this fact:

    “one of the reasons why we’ve seen a significant reduction of coal usage in the United States is not because of our regulations. It’s been because natural gas got really cheap as a consequence of fracking. Now, there are a lot of environmentalists who absolutely object to fracking because their attitude is sometimes it’s done really sloppy and releases methane that is even a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It leaks into people’s water supplies and aquafers, and when done improperly can really harm a lot of people. And their attitude is we got to leave that stuff in the ground if we’re going to solve climate change.

    And I get all that. On the other hand, the fact that we’re transitioning from coal to natural gas means less greenhouse gases”.

    The idea the McAuliffe and Northam must oppose natural gas if they want to get serious about climate change is a stretch. I guess we would rather have coal plants? Lets be realistic, we as a society need energy, and our energy consumption is going to continue to grow. To feed this need we need to generate power, natural gas is significantly cleaner than coal and cost effective. Lets craft a responsible energy policy the strives to get us to 100% renewable energy and responsibly use clean non renewable resources to bridge us to that day.

  • Edward N Virginia

    Morally ignorant urban Democrats should stop using corporate power to extract cheap energy from rural places to ensure that they have cheap energy for their massive infrastructured lifestyles and amenities! While decrying Big Energy urban Democrats are nonetheless delighted to have cheap energy, at the expense of rural communities. Coal and gas are raped from rural places. Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste are located in rural places. Solar and wind farms are located in rural places. Morally ignorant, and selfish, urban Democrats blindly cooperate in corporate dismantling and destruction and pollution of rural environments, threatening or damaging rural communities, and paying the people cheaply for their exposure to existential hazards (cave ins, landslides into steep settlements, coal ash mountains tumbling into rural rivers, black lung, brown lung, lost limbs, etc). Morally mute urban Democrats blah blah blah about ‘green’ this and that, and ‘sustainable’ here and there, but ARE OBVIOUSLY neither ‘green’ nor ‘sustainable’ since they rape cheap energy from largely poor rural places, using corporate power to locate ALL the hazards in rural places, and then have the Satanic morality to ship their sh*t back into rural places (their landfills are NOT in city limits, their coal ash dumps are NOT in city limits, their nuclear waste sites are NOT in city limits, their actual nasty mountains of sh*t’ are NOT in city limits, etc).

    What does this mean in this discussion?

    It means that until the majority of Virginia Democrats – who are urban – OWN UP to their abysmal morality – abandoning rural people, calling them names (‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’, ‘Christian’, ‘racists’, ‘rednecks’, etc) without actually learning about them and their cultures, and learning to listen to them – Virginia Democrats will continue to lose the House and likely continue to lose the Senate in Virginia, and will likely continue to lose Congressional Districts, and just might lose statewide elections.

    It means that the discussion of pipelines MUST OWN UP to the facts that rural communities don’t want pipelines because they are well aware that they are being ripped of. So, Democrats who want the pipelines need to ensure that the values of land taken are paid at HIGHEST POSSIBLE VALUE, and then add more to that! Democrats who want the pipelines need to ensure that local towns and counties are given BIG SUMS OVER the ENTIRE LIFE OF THE PIPELINE for public health and safety planning and infrastructure, and economic development and community development planning and infrastructure.

    It means that Democrats who DO NOT want pipelines, but insist on alternatives – solar, wind, nuclear, efficiency, etc – DEMAND that most of that production is INSIDE city limits! AND further that all the waste associated with those alternatives STAY INSIDE CITY LIMITS.

    If Democrats DON’T do these things what does that mean: THEY are imperialist pigs who deserve to be overthrown.

    Black Haitian slaves did it. Oppressed French peasants did it. Even White American property owners who didn’t like British taxes did it.

  • From Rep. Don Beyer:

    Beyer Urges FERC To Allow More Public Input, Improve Protection of Environment and Appalachian Trail Following Mountain Valley Pipeline Analysis

    Raises host of issues with the FERC process for the pipeline, questions need for Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines

    July 17, 2017 (Washington, D.C.) – Rep. Don Beyer today sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) raising a series of issues with the Commission’s review process for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Beyer noted deficiencies with FERC’s review process in the area of public feedback and transparency, and urged the Commission to issue a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for public comment.

    Beyer wrote:

    “I find FERC’s recent decision to issue the FEIS for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline patently alarming…

    At stake is one of our nation’s treasured landscapes – the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) and the surrounding national park and national forest lands. The A.T. – congressionally designated as a national scenic trail nearly 50 years ago – is one of the most significant land features in the eastern United States….Mountain Valley’s proposed route impacts 19 prominent views over nearly 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, affecting 20 percent of the trail in Virginia.

    Affected stakeholders were…not able to offer their comments on the thousands of pages of updates for FERC consideration…..They deserve the opportunity to express their views fully and participate in a robust public engagement process, especially for projects which will use eminent domain to seize private land from homeowners and farmers.

    Routes with less severe implications for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, local ecosystems, local outdoor recreation and local communities and family farms of southwestern Virginia deserve further consideration.

    A project the magnitude of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline should do more to minimize its impact and FERC should revise its process to go back to the drawing board, issue an SEIS, and allow for more extensive public input on all new information before proceeding further with the project.”

    Beyer also questioned the need for both pipelines and urged FERC “to thoroughly consider whether the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines are necessary.”

    Full text of the letter is below, and a signed copy is available here.

    ***

    Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
    888 First Street, NE
    Washington, DC 20426

    Dear Commissioners:

    I write to urge current and incoming Commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Commission’s staff to review the recently issued Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (FERC/FEIS-0272F) to ensure that energy infrastructure, if deemed necessary, is appropriately sited to have minimal impact on nearby residents and communities, and that long-term safeguards for natural and cultural resources be given thorough consideration. I also urge the Commission to commit to more transparent public processes and to thoroughly consider whether the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines are necessary.

    I find FERC’s recent decision to issue the FEIS for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline patently alarming. In response to the September 2016 Draft EIS, Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC had to present more information and an updated route for the pipeline proposal. Their updates extended beyond the public comment period, which ended in December 2016, and included thousands of additional pages of crucially important information. Affected stakeholders were thus not able to offer their comments on the thousands of pages of updates for FERC consideration. FERC’s appropriate course of action should be to issue a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for public comment before moving forward towards the issuance of a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.

    At stake is one of our nation’s treasured landscapes – the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.) and the surrounding national park and national forest lands. The A.T. – congressionally designated as a national scenic trail nearly 50 years ago – is one of the most significant land features in the eastern United States. Its cultural heritage, its recreational options, and its natural resources, including its important role in maintaining healthy watersheds, all serve crucial roles in the lives and communities of the Appalachian region.

    Mountain Valley’s proposed route impacts 19 prominent views over nearly 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, affecting 20 percent of the trail in Virginia. The proposed route puts these cultural, recreational, and natural resources in peril, threatening healthy watersheds and small-town economies that are supported by outdoor recreation expenditures. Construction of the pipeline along this route could severely degrade the A.T. as well as the surrounding national park and national forest lands.

    I am also concerned that the pipeline developer did not fully consider proposed alternative routes once it became clear that its recommended route would require the U.S. Forest Service to amend the Jefferson National Forest Management Plan. Such forest management plans are designed carefully and only after extensive public consultation. The alteration of such a laboriously constructed and well-balanced forest management plan to accommodate one company’s proposed pipeline route should prompt FERC and the Forest Service to redouble their efforts to receive input from and give consideration to the views of the local communities affected by large energy infrastructure proposals.

    The current consideration of two major pipeline proposals in Virginia has also brought greater attention to opportunities available to FERC to improve its public engagement and responsiveness. Local communities affected most by proposed energy infrastructure naturally have concerns regarding projects of this size and complexity. They deserve the opportunity to express their views fully and participate in a robust public engagement process, especially for projects which will use eminent domain to seize private land from homeowners and farmers.

    I am not alone in these concerns: residents across the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as their Senators and Representatives, are expressing their concerns as well. My colleagues, hailing from both sides of the aisle, recently introduced measures – H.R. 2893 and S. 1314 – which call for greater fairness and transparency in FERC’s important role in the permitting of natural gas pipelines. I urge the Commission to reform its own processes to align its work with the steps outlined in these legislative proposals.

    Finally, the necessity of the project over the long term remains suspect, as a recent filing from the Southern Environmental Law Center requesting that FERC hold an evidentiary hearing for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline makes clear. Moving forward with both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline could only be necessary if significant energy demand was guaranteed to continue in this region and target markets for multiple decades, if one of these major pipelines would be woefully insufficient to meet that level of assured demand, and if all clean energy alternatives, including renewable energy and energy efficiency, have been fully deployed and exhausted. I am not yet satisfied that these questions have been definitively resolved. Moreover, each pipeline is proposed to be built by companies that are corporate affiliates of the companies slated to purchase the majority of the transported gas, a potentially self-dealing arrangement that calls into question any true, market-based need for either pipeline. I urge FERC to conduct a thorough and transparent review of the need for each of these projects.

    Regardless of whether these pipelines are actually necessary or reflect actual, free market demand, FERC’s Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Mountain Valley Pipeline leaves too many questions unanswered and too many communities exposed. Routes with less severe implications for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, local ecosystems, local outdoor recreation and local communities and family farms of southwestern Virginia deserve further consideration. A project the magnitude of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline should do more to minimize its impact and FERC should revise its process to go back to the drawing board, issue an SEIS, and allow for more extensive public input on all new information before proceeding further with the project.

    Sincerely,

    Donald S. Beyer Jr.

  • James Kotcon

    Many of the comments start from the assumption that the fossil fuel industry has an inherent right to burn as much as they want. What if we started from the assumption that our first responsibility is to leave a clean, safe environment for our children, and that business practices contrary to that goal are unacceptable?

    The so-called business geniuses in the fossil fuel industry have known, or should have known, for the last 30 years that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that means that we cannot burn all the coal, oil and gas in the ground. instead of recognizing that, the fossil fuel industry keeps buying up reserves, on the assumption that we will burn it all, regardless of the costs to our children. In a free market, people who make bad business investments get stuck with stranded costs.

    Nuclear energy is no better. Every time someone starts a project, it comes in substantially over cost projections. The majority of nuclear power plants in the US lost money this last year, and that includes many that are already paid off. Energy efficiency, cheap gas, and renewables (in that order) have lowered the cost of electricity to the point where even existing nukes can not make money. And that does not even count the costs of insurance or permanent nuclear waste disposal.

    One option to assure a reliable electricity supply AND reduce greenhouse gases is to use “negative emissions”. Use biomass to fuel power plants equipped with carbon capture. Green plants capture CO2 from the air through photosynthesis, and when burned, the carbon is captured and pumped into permanent storage. With a suitable carbon emissions fee, this would be cost-effective, and the fossil fuel companies that created the climate crisis would be paying the carbon fee to clean up their mess.

    • Rod Adams

      Carbon capture is a nascent technology whose proponents have yet to prove that it works on a commercially viable scale.

      Nuclear cost increases have been partially the result of inexperience and poor project management, but they have also been caused by purposeful and well planned efforts by economic competitors to drive up the cost of building, owning and operating nuclear plants.

      One of the most effective ways to drive up the cost of any large construction project is to engage in delay tactics. Another is to effectively seek to impose regulatory requirement changes after the design has been finalized and construction has begun. Both have been used extensively in almost every nuclear plant project attempted in the U.S.

      Abundant natural gas hasn’t reduced costs as much as it has reduced the market price to a level at which no one is making any money and most market participants are just hanging on, hoping that others will fail and reduce the current “glut” of supplies.

      They like it when nuclear plants exit because those exits are permanent; a shuttered nuclear plant will not be returning once markets tighten and prices increase to a point where they would be profitable again.

      Price wars are common practice; customers temporarily benefit while the battles are in progress, but they suffer once some of the competitors have been eliminated, especially if the elimination is a “kill” and not just a wound.

      • James Kotcon

        Carbon Capture is a costly, but well demonstrated technology, and its adoption hinges on “cost”. The term “commercially viable scale” is heavily dependent on the policy choices controlling the market. For example, dumping CO2 into the air for free, is a significant subsidy to fossil fuels that is borne by future generations. Paying a reasonable carbon fee for emissions, and earning that fee for sequestration, is a policy choice to make those who benefit pay the true cost of their enterprise, and it makes CCS “commercially viable” for biofuel facilities. The decision to impose a carbon fee is a policy choice as to whether fossil fuels need to pay the true cost of their operation, whereas omitting a carbon cost is a policy choice to subsidize fossil fuels and discount the impacts to our kids.
        But investing billions in a pipeline system that we don’t need, while forcing customers to pay for the gas companies’ bad business decisions is bad economics, bad for consumers, and very bad for the environment. The decision to impose those costs on customers regardless of actual need is another “policy choice” to expedite fossil fuels. It benefits the gas owners, guarantees a profit for the pipeline companies, and us mere citizens get stuck while the gas companies laugh all the way to the bank.

        • Rod Adams

          I find it interesting to note that you claim CCS is well demonstrated in the same comment in which you criticize pipelines as something “we don’t need.”

          Are you aware of any CCS demonstrations that do not rely on a substantial pipeline infrastructure? Can you point me to information about them?

          As far as I know, all of the existing CCS projects move the separated CO2 several tens of miles away from the plant where the gas is recovered. They often use that CO2 as a useful fluid for enhanced oil or gas recovery; it serves to add pressure to reservoirs that are nearing the end of their useful life.

          There are few, if any, projects that recover more than a small portion of the CO2 generated by burning any kind of fuel.