Opinion

A warning for NC on the climate cost of natural gas

It sounded good a few years ago: natural gas, cleaner than coal and better for the environment.

But now burning more natural gas is sounding like the wrong turn at the wrong time. Extracting natural gas leads to increased leaks of methane, a contributor to global warming that in its first 20 years in the atmosphere heats up the climate 80 times more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. Studies show a big increase in methane over the last decade that corresponds to the rise in fracking for natural gas in shale formations.

Unfortunately, Duke Energy’s plans are locked into the positive spin on natural gas even as the negative consequences of methane releases are becoming apparent. And North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper supports a major element of that natural gas-dependent future: the construction of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will carry natural gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia, into Virginia and across the midsection of North Carolina. The pipeline could support new Duke Energy power plants fueled by natural gas.

Last week, Drew Shindell, a Duke University professor and climate scientist who helped coordinate reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote to Cooper to call for a halt to the expanding use of natural gas. Twenty seven former Environmental Protection Agency scientists and administrators endorsed the letter.

During a call with reporters, Shindell said “The time is now to stop building more fossil fuel infrastructure across the country. We’re urging Governor Cooper to take the lead and halt new pipelines and power plants in North Carolina, providing an example for the rest of the country and even for the rest of the world.”

The news conference was arranged by NC WARN, a utility watchdog group based in Durham and a frequent critic of Duke Energy.

Shindell was joined on the teleconference call by Dale Evarts, who led the Climate and International Group at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2006-2018. Evarts, who was among the former EPA officials who endorsed Shindell’s letter, said utilities should be taking advantage of renewable energy sources, which are becoming less costly than burning fossil fuels.

“We really can’t stay at a safe level of climate change if we keep expanding fossil fuel use,” Evarts said. “Coal we know is declining very rapidly, but this replacement of coal with fracked, gas, natural gas power, is a poor second cousin of that. We really need to leap into the less costly renewable energy pathway. It will save us a lot of money.”

Cooper has endorsed a plan by the state Department of Environmental Quality that would reduce greenhouse gases produced by electric power to 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. On accepting the plan in September, Cooper said, “Our children and our grandchildren are depending on us to turn the tide of climate change.”

But the governor is undercutting his own commitment to the future by supporting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Early on, there were practical arguments for building the pipeline and it’s still true that pipelines can be part of an efficient transition to cleaner fuels. But that rationale is starting to melt away as the threat of climate change grows and the cost of renewable energy declines and delays keep increasing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cost.

Cooper would do well to consider Shindell’s appeal and think again about the cost to the environment and to consumers of building North Carolina’s future around natural gas. That reconsideration should involve an independent assessment of the costs and supply of renewable energy and whether renewables truly can take the place of fossil fuels in the near future.

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