Home Energy and Environment Sorry (Not Sorry), Virginia Politicians: You Can’t Support New Fracked-Gas Pipelines and...

Sorry (Not Sorry), Virginia Politicians: You Can’t Support New Fracked-Gas Pipelines and Also Support Clean Energy

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Among the many other “joys” (most definitely in air quotes) of covering Virginia politics is listening to hypocritical elected officials and candidates talk about how much they support something, but then listen – and watch – as their other words and actions completely undercut the thing they claim to be supporting. A great example of this is politicians who claim to understand the need (for economic and environmental reasons) to move towards a clean energy economy, while simultaneously either supporting or failing to oppose new fracked-gas pipelines.

The problem, as this excellent article by Energy News Network elucidates, is that supporting new fracked-gas pipelines not only encourages more development of fracked gas, but just as bad in many ways, actually “slows progress on renewables.” Here’s how.

…Prices for methane, the gas constituent burned in power plants and for heating, are expected to remain in the vicinity of their current level — about $2.50 to $3 per thousand Btu — for at least a decade. 

Due to the prodigious supply, gas sets the regional and national price floor for electricity markets in nearly all of the country and especially in the East. That price, judging from futures contracts for electricity, as well as the large number of gas plants that are planned, is projected to remain low.

“If natural gas is cheap for a long time then electricity is going to be cheap for a long time,” said Tim Belden, principal at Energy GPS, an energy data analysis firm in Portland, Oregon. “Low gas prices are a headwind for renewables.”

In short, artificially cheap fracked gas undercuts actual clean energy – emphasis on the word “clean,” something fracked gas most certainly is not. But wait, you say, isn’t that how capitalism’s supposed to work, that competition results in the lowest-cost “substitutable good”  — in this case, the type of energy, whether natural gas, coal, solar or wind — winning a higher market share, while the more expensive “substitutables” lose market share? Yeah, sure, in theory, except for a few huge problems in reality.

  • First and foremost, of course, it’s a complete fallacy to assume that the price of something in our economic system reflects its real cost, including a wide variety of direct and indirect subsidies (in the tax code, in government-funded R&D, etc, etc.), and of course “negative externalities (“an economic activity that imposes a negative effect on an unrelated third party”). Classic examples of “negative externalities” related to fracking are things like air pollution from burning fossil fuels (e.g., natural gas), the release of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the fracking process, and “water pollution by industries that adds effluent, which harms plants, animals, and humans” (definitely the case in the process of fracking and also in building and maintaining pipeline infrastructure). We can add in “adverse health effects, erosion, seismic activity” as well as “environmental justice concerns” and massive water use. And really, this list can go on and on. The point is, the actual cost of fracked gas that’s faced by consumers is not – repeat, NOT! – reflective of the true, “fully internalized” cost of the gas, taking everything into account.  Factor all that bad stuff into the price of fracked gas, and its economics don’t look nearly as favorable; in fact, its economics would then almost certainly not be favorable at all, certainly not compared to energy efficiency (the cheapest form of energy), or to increasingly cheap clean energy sources like wind and solar power.
  • Second, the whole idea that we have a pure capitalist system in this country, one in which different goods and services compete on some sort of level playing field, is completely false. In the case of energy, for instance, in addition to all the issues raised in the first bullet, there’s also a wide range of ways in which powerful corporate interests influence – or even “capture” – government policymakers, regulatory bodies, etc., tilting the playing field in favor of one industry or the other. Right here in Virginia, we’ve seen time and time again how Dominion Energy distorts the political system to maximize its own profits, while harming the interests of all Virginians who are not top Dominion Energy executives or their bought-and-paid for lackeys. Consider how a multi-billion-dollar, corrupt boondoggle such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could ever get approved, and how Virginia regulatory bodies could fail to kill it, even as there’s been almost no serious effort to max out on energy efficiency, let alone open the floodgates to development of Virginia’s massive offshore wind and solar power potential. The reason isn’t that fracked gas is in any way better than energy efficiency, wind or solar – quite the contrary – but that politically powerful, entrenched, incumbent industries “capture” the system in order to tilt the playing field…towards themselves, of course. That’s completely corrupt, of course; “crony capitalism” rather than actual competition – you know, the thing that conservatives CLAIM to love so much, but don’t really give a crap about.
  • Finally, I’d just like to point out that the utter absurdity of those insufferable politicians – and their enablers – claiming that they oppose fracking here in Virginia, while effectively encouraging it just across the border in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Thus, we see those insufferable politicians (hello, Ralph Northam? Terry McAuliffe?) actively promoting new fracked-gas pipelines from the Marcellus Basin across Virginia, while simultaneously claiming they are environmentalists who oppose fracking. For anyone who thinks about this absurdity for more than about two seconds, it’s truly vomit-inducing.

The bottom line, of course, is that you simply can *not* honestly claim to be a protector of Virginia’s environment, or someone who understands the urgency of climate action, or who “gets” the need to switch as rapidly as possible to a clean energy economy, while simultaneously supporting – overtly or tacitly – an expansion of natural gas fracking. Note my use of the word “honestly,” as of course it *is* possible to DIShonestly claim to be a protect of Virginia’s environment, etc. while supporting an expansion of natural gas fracking. That’s certainly what we saw with Gov. McAuliffe, who loves touting his supposed environmental credentials, while in fact when Dominion Energy told him to jump, he asked “how high?” It’s also what we’ve seen to date from Gov. Northam, who has simply taken the corrupt baton handed off from McAuliffe and run with it…all while falsely claiming to be a great protector of the environment. In both cases, they need to be called out for their dishonesty, loudly and repeatedly – and in the case of McAuliffe, to never be elected to anything, ever again.