Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.
Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.
The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.
It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.
The proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.
The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.
That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:
Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.
Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.