Home Energy and Environment Why Ralph Northam Should Oppose the Proposed New Gas Pipelines

Why Ralph Northam Should Oppose the Proposed New Gas Pipelines


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.


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