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Defining Clean Energy for the Future


New requirements to meet future, clean energy goals are raising new questions about what it will take to achieve them. Robbie Harris has this report on how that’s expanding the debate over natural gas pipelines proposed for Virginia.

The process of creating enough electricity to power modern society is never completely efficient and it’s never easy.  And no one know that better than utility companies, which have the responsibility of keeping the lights on and houses warm whenever customers flip a switch or adjust a thermostat. That’s why several companies are proposing construction of new liquid natural gas pipelines for southern Virginia –here in one of the relatively few areas in the country that doesn’t already have them. Opponents of the plan would like to keep it that way.

“The problem we have is the gas industry and many public officials are quick to say that gas is a solution to climate change and that’s just not the case.”

Glen Besa is Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. A new report by his organization includes a study of how much methane, a green house gas, is released during the entire process of harnessing its energy--as the report puts it, from fracking, to leakage during transmission, and ultimately in burning it.

“So when you burn natural gas, OK, it has half the emissions of burning coal, but you have to look at the entire natural gas fuel cycle and that’s what this report does and when you look at the entire cycle, you see that there is a significant amount of GHG emissions, climate impacting emissions.

The conclusion of the report is green house gas emissions from The proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atltantic Coast Pipeline, will over the lifetime of their use, exceed emissions from all the power plants in the state.

The report’s author, Richard Ball is a retired climate scientist who spent decades working at  US Departments of Energy and Environmental Protection.

He says while he’s not the first to point out the rest of the equation in using natural gas, but it’s time to take a new look at how it adds up.

“We’d been worried about this issue but people still thought well, it’s less… they didn’t recognize the leakage quite as much then. Environmental organizations and DOE  were pushing natural gas. But that was a long time ago when we didn’t think we had to cut back on green house emissions nearly as much, but,  we didn’t do anything about it back then.

The Sierra Club has sent this report to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which has jurisdiction of construction of gas pipelines.. FERC would not comment on it but some like Glen Besa believe it may be open to hearing some of these issues. Last month it issued a draft update to its Guidance Manual for Environmental Report Preparation regarding natural gas pipelines the first since 2002. It includes a requirement to consider the broader and cumulative effects.

“When you build a pipeline today or tomorrow you’re going to be living with that pipeline and all the gas that puts into the atmosphere for 30 years or more so if we recognize the need to pivot to wind and solar and energy efficiency more quickly these kinds of massive investments, $5 million  in natural gas pipelines don’t make sense.

Dominion Power, which is proposing to build one of the pipelines, has a different take on the topic. In an email spokesman Jim Norville said the overwhelming consensus of state and federal policymakers – which the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club ignores – is that natural gas for electric generation is essential to meeting the goals of the President’s Clean Power plan He added that, the  Atlantic Coast Pipeline will not only help meet growing demands for natural gas,  it will also support  renewable energy  in the region by fueling necessary backup generation.  Officials with the Mountain Valley pipeline project did not reply to requests for comment.

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