New gas infrastructure is going to completely undermine U.S. climate goals

A new report shows that with the proposed natural gas pipelines, the United States cannot meet its climate commitments. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JIM COLE
A new report shows that with the proposed natural gas pipelines, the United States cannot meet its climate commitments. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JIM COLE

The climate action movement has gotten a lot of wins during the Obama administration.

The Keystone XL pipeline permit denial. The Clean Power Plan. The proposed methane rules. These things are all part of an effort to limit carbon emissions and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

But, as it turns out, these actions are not enough.

The country is in the process of building hundreds of miles of natural gas pipeline that will tie the United States to fossil fuel production and consumption for decades — well past when most scientists predict we will have done irreparable harm to our human habitat.

The fossil fuel industry is building a giant machine to extract more fossil fuel in the United States

“Once the pipelines are built and permitted and operating, it significantly lowers the cost for operators to get their gas to market,” Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, told ThinkProgress. “All of that additional production that gets triggered needs to be thought about.”

Building out production

In fact, if the United States continues with its current natural gas policy, there is no way for the country to meet its emissions reduction goals, according to a report released Friday by Oil Change International.

CREDIT: Oil Change International
CREDIT: Oil Change International

The report, which focuses on the natural gas-producing area of the Appalachian Basin, specifically Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, details the growth in natural gas production and infrastructure in the region. There are currently 19 major new or expanded pipeline projects in the region, which has increased production 13-fold since 2009. These pipelines will make the gas accessible across the country and around the world, as production is expected to double again by 2030.

“The fossil fuel industry is building a giant machine to extract more fossil fuel in the United States,” Kretzmann said.

His group is pushing for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which approves natural gas infrastructure permits, to include a climate test in its approval process. Right now, despite the fact that there are several national goals and international commitments to reduce emissions, the country does not consider climate impact when evaluating projects. In addition, projects are evaluated individually, rather than in aggregate.

Who agreed to this?

A court challenge to FERC’s approval process — over a natural gas export terminal under construction in Maryland — was denied earlier this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals. EarthReports had asked that FERC consider the indirect effects of the terminal and use a social cost of carbon tool to calculate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. The court ruled that neither was necessary or reasonable.

A spokesperson for FERC emailed the following statement to ThinkProgress.

The Court held that it was not arbitrary and capricious for the Commission to conclude that EarthReports’ claimed indirect impacts –- additional natural gas production activities (in particular increased natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus shale region) and increased greenhouse gas emissions from the production, transport and consumption of the exported natural gas –- were not causally connected to changes in the LNG terminal. Nor were those impacts reasonably foreseeable.

The Court also affirmed the Commission’s decision to not use the “social cost of carbon” tool to calculate greenhouse gas emissions. The Court found FERC’s explanation of why the tool was neither accurate nor informative to be reasonable.

The spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the agency’s pipeline permitting process is guided by the Natural Gas Act and NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). It is possible that the EPA, through the Clean Air Act, could have some impact on how the agency evaluates the climate impact of, but the simplest, most effective way to make the change would be for Congress to pass legislation.

The problem with natural gas

The report’s title is “A Bridge To Far,” a nod at the characterization of natural gas as a bridge fuel to help manage the transition off coal-fired electricity generation. Seen as a less-carbon intensive fuel, natural gas is hardly without issues. Even setting aside concerns about polluted water, earthquakes, and diminished air quality that have been linking to fracking, natural gas is almost entirely methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year-period. And unlike coal, the greenhouse gas in natural gas escapes on its own — no combustion necessary. In fact, leaks from natural gas are a significant issue.

Methane Leaks Erase Climate Benefit Of Fracked Gas, Countless Studies FindClimate CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File Fracking is not good for the climate. Or, to put it a tad more scientifically,…thinkprogress.orgBut even under perfect containment scenarios, natural gas is a problem. The supposedly clean-burning fuel emits slightly more than half as much CO2 as coal does when burned for energy. But considering that the United States has a goal of reducing its emissions by 83 percent by 2050, reducing by half is not going to cut it.

Emissions from leaks and combustion explain why, among people who are concerned about climate change, the phrase “bridge to nowhere” is not uncommon when talking about natural gas.

“It’s time for the fossil fuel industry to enter a managed decline,” Kretzmann said, noting that a managed decline includes a just transition. “We can do this, but you have to make the decision to do it. You can’t really sugar coat it.”

His organization’s report focuses on the Appalachian Basin, where two major natural gas reserves are located.

The future of pipelines

Two of these projects run through Virginia, where a coalition of environmental groups are marching on the governor’s mansion Saturday, in protest of natural gas, coal, and offshore drilling positions.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ran on a platform that included climate action but has so far failed to live up to expectations, said the Chesapeake Climate Action Network founder and director Mike Tidwell.

I do not think that these pipelines are in any way inevitable

“[The march] is a qualitative jump in the level of fossil fuel resistance in the state of Virginia, and it is focused on Terry McAuliffe because he has the power to take action on his own, without Congress, without the General Assembly,” Tidwell told ThinkProgress.

It is true that governors have the power to delay or even defeat fossil fuel projects. In New York, Tidwell pointed out, Gov. Mario Cuomo indefinitely postponed a pipeline project because it presented a risk to drinking water. There are a number of reasons McAuliffe could, if he chose, oppose the pipelines in Virginia — including erosion and environmental justice.

And the key to getting that opposition is, as always, through public pressure. More and more Americans are starting to realize that if the country continues to use fossil fuels in the way it has in the past, some communities will literally go underwater. (In fact, some people have already been displaced by rising sea levels.)

“There’s not a major new proposed fossil fuel infrastructure project in America that is not being opposed intensely by somebody,” Tidwell said. “I do not think that these pipelines are in any way inevitable.”