Gas Worse Carbon Polluter than Coal, Says Sierra Club

global_warmingby James A. Bacon

The Sierra Club has attacked the idea of natural gas as a “clean fuel” in a new broadside against the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) through Virginia. When viewed over the “natural gas fuel cycle” — including production, transportation and combustion — natural gas would be a bigger contributor to climate change than the existing electric generating fleet, including coal-fired plants, the environmental organization charged late last week.

“Natural gas only seems like a cheap and easy fix for climate change,” said Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, in a statement accompanying the white paper. “In reality, methane pollution is a serious problem that makes natural gas a dead-end solution. We have to stop kidding ourselves. Virginia should be investing in wind and solar and energy efficiency, not expanding infrastructure for more fossil fuel burning.”

The Sierra Club issued the report as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality makes important decisions about how the state should implement the federally imposed Clean Power Plan, which calls for a massive reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions from Virginia power plants by 2030. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have called for the most aggressive options, which would require more solar and wind and less natural gas than proposed by Dominion Virginia Power. Backers of the ACP and MVP pipelines have justified the projects on the grounds that they will supply gas-fired power plants in Virginia and North Carolina with cheap shale gas from West Virginia and Ohio.

“The overwhelming consensus of state and federal policymakers – which the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club ignores – is the increased use of natural gas for electric generation is essential to meeting the Clean Power Plan,” responded Jim Norvelle, director-media relations for Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the ACP.

“This is the view of President Obama and elected officials from states across the country,” he said. “It is also the clear guidance of the [Environmental Protection Agency], which identified increased use of natural gas generation as one of three key building blocks for meeting the goals of the Clean Power Plan.”

Because the combustion of natural gas releases less CO2 per unit of heat than the combustion of coal, it is commonly argued that a switch to gas, while less helpful than a shift to solar and wind in reducing CO2, does make a significant contribution as a “bridge” fuel in the fight against global warming. But the Sierra Club argues that such a combustion-only analysis excludes the impact of the release of gas during fracking operations and pipeline leaks. Summarizes the Sierra Club statement:

In addition to emitting large amounts of CO2 when burned, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change in the extraction and transmission stages, where significant amounts of methane escape from wells and pipeline leaks. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and these “fugitive emissions” of methane have emerged as an area of serious concern that undercuts the case for natural gas as a cleaner substitute for coal. …

Greenhouse gas emissions for Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be more than five times the annual emissions from Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station, the largest coal fired plant in Virginia, and equal to more than 80% of the total carbon pollution from all 177 stationary sources in the EPA’s 2014 inventory of GHG emissions in Virginia, states the Sierra Club.  The impact of the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be even greater.

Critics of renewable fuels counter that solar and wind farms produce electricity only  when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, not when there is a demand for electricity. Natural gas generation can be dialed up and down quickly as electricity demand changes. That flexibility is particularly critical if electric utilities are to adopt “demand-response” rate structures that encourage users to conserve energy during periods of peak demand. Gas advocates also note that the gas infrastructure has less impact on the landscape. Solar and wind requires far more land to generate comparable amounts of electricity; wind turbines and vast expanses of solar panels also are more visually intrusive than buried pipelines.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


21 responses to “Gas Worse Carbon Polluter than Coal, Says Sierra Club”

  1. VaConsumer Avatar

    Intrusiveness may be in the eye of the beholder. As usual, energy efficiency and conservation are not considered as contributors to the solution. The gas supporters ignore the danger landowners and neighbors face from gas infrastructure. They also assume the land can be used, even though its use and the use of land near gas infrastructure, is forever limited by the presence of the infrastructure as well as the prohibition to grow trees, build buildings or create ponds. It appears that land is purchased or leased with annual income for landowners when solar and wind are sited, while only a one time easement is paid to pipeline affected landowners, who continue to have to pay annual property taxes on pipeline land with no annual income. Solar and wind don’t expose the landowner and neighbors to escaped gas and fiery explosions with only federal safety inspection that is limited to once every 7-10 years in rural areas. Personally, I’d be delighted to trade the gas infrastructure for solar and/or wind on my property – even in the middle of it.

    1. Those saying that gas infrastructure is relatively benign are not familiar with the severe potential consequences of putting a pipeline in the “swiss cheese” karst which underlies much of the Shenandoah Valley. And it is the same old refrain from the anti-solar lobby that assumes that all solar development will be on greenfield sites. We need a diverse mix of generating sources, including affordable solar (and the CPP goals cannot be met without it).

      The Brunswick and Greensville plants will have their place in Dominion’s mix and they are already served by a new existing pipeline. The question is, do we need more NGCC plants after that? Dominion has plans for others in 2022 and 2030. As individual units they probably will not meet the emission rate CO2 limits but could help reduce the statewide emissions if they replace coal fired generation.

      You are right on target about energy efficiency not being recognized as the cheapest source of new generation and also valuable for CPP credits if done correctly. Even without an aggressive program such as exists in Massachusetts and elsewhere, PJM is projecting a 3.6% decline in load by 2019 within its territory. Reduction in load is a reality that will only be accelerated by energy efficiency and demand response programs.

      It is not healthy for Dominion to keep investing in long-term projects such as the pipeline and NGCC plants without a clearer understanding of the new energy landscape. We need Dominion at the center of our 21st century “wires” system. It will be bad for them and expensive for us if they are flat on their back because they overbuilt expensive infrastructure projects in hope of extending the 20th century too far into the 21st.

      What if the ACP is built and is quickly found not to be necessary? The U.S. Geological Survey has projected that 122 trillion cubic feet of gas exists in the Marcellus that can be extracted with current technology. If all of the gas pipelines are built that are proposed or under development we will add 10 trillion cubic feet per year of takeaway capacity to the Marcellus according to Moody’s Investment Service. Not all will go into service at the same time, but that means we could build enough capacity to drain the Marcellus in less than 15 years. Clearly, not all of these pipelines are necessary, including the ACP.

      Do we want Dominion to build a $5+ billion pipeline with a 80-100 year useful life that might be useful only for a decade or two? Certainly that would not be good for Dominion or the ratepayers.

      Using the new Transco spur to serve the two Southside plants throughout their life, as it was intended, and reversing the flow of some pipelines in the Transco corridor will provide Virginia with more gas than will be supplied by the ACP without the destruction of our land and at a far lower cost. If it turns out we don’t need as much gas as expected because of high natural gas prices or reductions in load, we will not be stuck with expensive projects that have little value, but still need to be paid for.

      Dominion needs revenues so they propose new projects. Let’s find a better way to keep them healthy that better serves the interest of the state and the ratepayers.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    well – if true – and I have no reason to think otherwise – you’d think this would also be a potent argument against CPP by the opponents of CPP , i.e. did the EPA actually model the emissions the Sierra Club is talking about – and if they did not and need to go back and incorporate properly -what WOULD BE the path forward for reductions in harmful emissions?

    what I’ve read says the SC is right about the methane and there has been concerns expressed that if tundra melts – that it will release a crap load of methane… accelerating climate change even faster!!!

    would a clever person claim that the natural gas burned for power geneations – combined with the mining emissions be as bad or worse than just burning coal alone?

    this aspect ought not be “denied” by “skeptics” EITHER!!!!

    do the numbers!

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Let’s live in caves. Neither the Sierra Club nor any other nonprofit should be permitted to spend any money on lobbying. If an entity has enough money to hire a lobbyist, it should be treated as a taxable entity. A nonprofit that relies on volunteers should be left alone and not taxed.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      @tmt – they’re not lobbying when they just publish stuff are they?

      and they’re certainly not stuffing gobs of money in any politicians campaign war chest like Dominion does.

      geeze TMT… do you want their voice taken away?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Yes, Larry, the Sierra Club is lobbying. And the Sierra Club has a PAC too.

        My point is not ideological. I don’t think any nonprofit should be able to spend money lobbying and have a tax exempt status. No for-profit can deduct its lobbying expenses.

        Sierra Club and the US Chamber of Commerce can lobby all they want, but as taxable entities.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          how about no lobbying even from ANY entity with direct financial interests in legislation AND non-profits?

          surely you must admit the dollar amount of what the SC folks “give” is DWARFED hundreds of times over by money from people with direct financial interests…Total Spent $12,556 <<<< this appears to be NATIONAL !!!

          you call THIS – "influence money" … let me show you what influence money REALLY looks like:$115,000 Dominion Leadership Trust – this is JUST for one thing.

          you actually pay for Dominion's lobbying.. they take part of what you pay them – and give that to the GA… right?

    2. I’m for living in caves. No heating or cooling. No emissions to cause global warming.

      Seriously, when did basic chemistry and common sense leave us? Burn a carbohydrate and you get a certain amount of heat whether it’s coal, or oil, or natural gas. Less particulates in the smoke from n.g., maybe, but essentially the same CO2, and then there’s all that new n.g. infrastructure. You want less carbon emissions? Go renewables, or NA3. You want cheap? Use that old coal plant until it rusts to dust. This much is not rocket science.

      What IS very difficult is to balance renewables with efficient fossil-fueled NGCC with nuclear baseload with distributed generation in an era of the CPP and low electric load growth overall and find the least-cost way forward. Dominion’s next IRP filed at the VSCC should make interesting reading.

  4. “Gas advocates also note that the gas infrastructure has less impact on the landscape. Solar and wind requires far more land to generate comparable amounts of electricity; wind turbines and vast expanses of solar panels also are more visually intrusive than buried pipelines.”

    … didn’t we go over this here?

    Even if pipes had a lower impact on the landscape (arguable), gas production involves so much more than that. What about mining operations or processing? Shale gas production is neither quiet nor clean.

    Why repeat this faulty assertion? And why finish the piece on this note?

  5. Re: CPP
    Right…at least for Virginia, Sierra Club is basically saying they cannot accept the EPA’s Clean Power Plan unless we abide by Sierra Club request to phase out natural gas as part of our state plan. That would take away many of the CPP compliance options that the EPA gave to Virginia.

    One would think the liberal position should be supportive of the CPP without hand-cuffing states by disallowing EPA-certified compliance options. At Sierra Club request, the EPA already discouraged use of natural gas in the final CPP Plan.

    Remember 27 states representing 75% of CO2 are suing EPA on the other side, so yes this calls further question to the Plan.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      why aren’t the folks suing using the SC argument about mining emissions not taken into account?

      wouldn’t that seriously undermine the EPA position that gas reduces emissions?

      re: more gas plants verses one more nuke

      you’d think that DVP could ALSO make the argument that one more Nuke – is the BEST way to reduce BOTH power generation emissions AND mining emissions, right?

      1. As far as CPP, there is no need to commit yet. Most states are expected to request a 2-yr extension in Sept_2016 until Sept-2018 for final submission of plans. Due to the complexity, it makes sense to take the extra 2-years to develop a final plan. I am starting to warm up to a PJM joint solution, but let’s see what happens this GA session.

        Not only is there no need to commit yet, even if we do commit, there is no need to choose a restrictive option that rules out nat gas. Basically SC pushing for the Gov make immediate (Sept_2016) unilateral choice of an option that would block out further use of nat gas.

        There is no need to use Clean Power Plan as a political hammer. A less combative approach is just defer CPP final plan to 2018 and consider picking a CPP option that keeps all of our options open. Then the decisions can be made based on the situation at the time say 2022 etc.

        P.S.- the significance of 2018 is that’s when the pending court cases are expected to provide further clarification.

  6. Please remember that only a few years ago, the SC was taking large donations to support natural gas in its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Takes a lot of soul searching to look at a bigger picture and see the more complex reality. Let’s give SC credit.

    As a couple commentators mentioned, there is never anything in our energy discussions about the simple, “Just use Less.” Somehow, we Americans think it’s always something that has to be sold or bought (depending…) when the reality is that we can change every light bulb in the house, buy back up solar power, buy every single energy efficient appliance and we’ll still be using more electricity because we’re buying more and more electrical products — to include things like “doggie fountains” to keep their water fresh. There is probably an electric something to cut our nose hairs, scratch our backs, wipe our… It’s never mentioned, for example, that space heaters heating ONLY where we are (without central heat/air) minimize more carbon emissions (regardless of source) than the most energy efficient HVAC we could buy. And that’s even before the emissions cost in junking whatever old system we replace, a cost which is rarely, if ever, calculated.

    When does the discussion finally turn to our controlling our incredible failure to think beyond our immediate gratification??? When does “education and encouragement” of truly conservative reality show up?

    Perhaps the Sierra Club report is a step in that direction?

    1. Hey, watch it, Salz. We have a kitty fountain in our house!

      (My wife’s idea – most ridiculous thing ever!!)

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      I consider the SC far to the left of other environmental groups such as EDF and NRDC and is my usual practice with left/right politics – I like to compare and contrast the positions of the 3 – on issues.

      And I also like to compare and contrast their positions with groups on the opposite end of the issue – the folks who are 180 degrees from even the most moderate of the Green groups – the EDF.

      long story short – the EDF is also concerned about methane :

      1. Surprised to hear that. I’ve seen a lot more head-in-the-sand stuff from NRDC myself. SC takes strident positions but strikes me as more farsighted, policy-wise.

      2. Everyone agrees methane is a greenhouse gas…so is water vapor. Good point though I notice that EDF and other major eco groups are not signatory on the recent letter to Gov. McAuliffe with Sierra Club-Virginia saying Dominion’s CPP plans should be scrapped. That’s probably because it’s hard enough for states to meet the EPA CPP proposed targets without having environmental groups undermine the EPA proposal. Just because EDF recognizes methane leakage is a potential climate change factor does not suggest they are agreeing that nat gas is worse than coal for Virginia.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    well I have to agree about the “use less” but most folks think of that in terms of not giving up anything – just getting something they did before for “less”.



    it’s sorta like “saving” landfills… it was very satisfying keeping separate boxes of different types of recyclables…

    really felt like we were making a difference…

    then they went to single stream – and you know – it walks and talks a LOT like …. we went back to garbage!!!

    I digress … and I apologize..

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    the Powerwall is REAL but I’m still a skeptic

    it says it is 7kwh, $3000 and …

    ” Each Powerwall has a 7 kWh energy storage capacity, sufficient to power most homes during the evening using electricity generated by solar panels during the day. Multiple batteries may be installed together for homes with greater energy needs. A 10 kWh weekly cycle version is available for backup applications.”

    Now – if this thing actually is this price and actually can perform as advertised –

    the idea that somehow such solar would be “intermittent” , “not-reliable” and ” hard for the utility to deal with because of it’s variability”- most all those arguments go out the window. That powerwall becomes like a home version of a car battery.. it just sits there – putting out power when needed and getting recharged from solar during the day.

    what would such a thing – if it works as advertised do to the demand for utility grid power if say 20% of households installed it?

    couldn’t that spell potential financial disaster for any utility that had gone into debt for new plants – subsequently not needed and idled?

    what would happen next?

    here’s the acid test for the Powerwall.. it ought to be killing it for off-grid and islands without native fossil fuels…right?

    1. Short answer is no, you’ll still need the grid and all the generation on it, at least for many many years. Powerwalls can’t carry you through a week of cloudy weather or even a couple of days if you have electric heat/hot water demand. Cut your costs, yes, but not allow you to go off-grid. What will happen is that grid generation patterns will change, and the wholesale market price of electricity and DSM prices will reflect that. Hopefully fossil fueled units will run less.

    2. Probably cheaper one could just hook up a bunch of car batteries just saying there is nothing other-worldly about the Power Wall. Lithium batt is of course nicer due to smaller size. With the advent of LED light bulbs and LED TV’s it starts get easier to think about running a house with less power.

Leave a Reply