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FERC’s Alternative Climate Facts

Federal agency has made 'no significant impact' determination for every pipeline-related climate assessment since 2009

This story originally appeared in Oil Change International.

Long before Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway took the phrase “alternative facts” mainstream, a rogue federal agency with authority to ram giant gas pipelines through people’s property against their will has for years pioneered the Trumpian version of reality when assessing the climate impact of natural gas infrastructure.

photo of pipelinePhoto by Loozrboy, FlickrFERC has approved nearly 200 interstate gas pipelines since 2009, but has not found a single one to have a significant impact on the climate.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an “independent” agency that regulates the interstate transmission of gas and electricity, has permitted nearly 200 interstate gas pipeline projects stretching over 6,000 miles since 2009, and rejected only a single application. For each of these permitted projects an environmental impact statement was conducted. Where climate was assessed in these studies, the conclusion has always been the same – “no significant impact.”

Oil Change International and partners are launching a series of briefings today, together with a detailed methodology, that set the record straight on FERC’s alternative climate facts. The evidence is as clear as the rain on Trump’s inauguration ceremony. Major interstate gas pipelines cause climate change.

We kick this series off with assessments of two proposed pipelines that would tear through the pristine national forests and historic bucolic farmlands of West Virginia and Virginia (and in the case of one, also through North Carolina), the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines. (Read more about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s impact on Appalachian landscapes and communities here.)

Together these pipelines would cause annual emissions of around 158 million metric tons, equivalent to that of 46 average coal plants or over 33 million passenger vehicles. These projects could deliver these emissions for decades to come, so given the urgency to reduce emissions to close to zero by mid-century to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, a verdict of ‘no significant impact’ seems a little lenient.

So how does FERC manage to portray these emissions as not actually happening? (Sean Spicer should take note here because we’re about to reveal some tricks of the trade.)

First, FERC sticks to long-since-discredited assumptions by ignoring an entire body of research that contradicts its preferred finding. Second, it pretends stuff that’s happening is not happening. 

The discredited assumption FERC is wedded to is the idea that gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal or oil and therefore more gas flowing into the market means reduced emissions. Like many things emanating from the current administration, it’s not that hard to scratch beneath the surface in order to find that the truth is much more complex.

At the tailpipe of the natural gas-powered truck or the chimney stack of the gas-fired power plant, gas does emit less greenhouse gas, and other pollutants, than the oil and coal it might be replacing. However, there’s two problems with relying on this assumption to conclude that more gas is less climate pollution.

First, it’s not at all clear that burgeoning natural gas production and consumption is simply replacing oil and coal in the market rather than clean energy, which is already out competing fossil fuels in some markets and set to do so globally within less than a decade.

Secondly, there is a huge body of scientific research that points to the full life cycle of natural gas causing greater damage to the climate than coal or oil because of the prolific leakage of gas along the supply chain emitting super potent methane into the atmosphere. Natural gas is generally between 75 percent and 95 percent methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that packs 86 times the punch of the most common climate altering gas — carbon dioxide. Therefore, a ton of methane leaked to the atmosphere from the gas supply system is equivalent to 86 tons of carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential. 

Measurements of methane in the atmosphere above oil and gas producing regions in the US have led to estimates that as much as 3.8 percent of US gas production is leaked or vented to the atmosphere on average. This means that the climate impact of gas-fired power could be more than double that of the gas combustion at the power plant. Therefore, if retiring coal power plants are replaced with gas power plants, emissions are higher than if the coal plant was allowed to continue operation. This is clearly not most people’s idea of a clean energy revolution.

Oil Change International’s new briefings and accompanying methodology paper detail these issues and provide clear analysis of the climate impact of these disastrous pipeline projects. As FERC begins a round of so-called “listening sessions” in three states along the route of the Atlantic Coast pipeline, we hope that citizens planning on commenting on the agency’s alternative climate facts in its draft environmental impact statement will be able to use these documents to inform FERC of the true scope of these impacts.

The key points are that the pipelines’ full life cycle emissions are a climate disaster because:

  • Producing electricity from gas is currently dirtier than coal-fired power because methane leakage along the gas supply chain more than doubles the life cycle emissions of gas compared to just counting emissions from gas combustion.
  • Current methane leakage reduction goals are not enough to make up for the projected increase in gas use.
  • To achieve climate goals, we need a total transition away from fossil fuels by mid-century.
  • Each new pipeline from the Appalachian Basin will trigger new gas production.
  • Each new pipeline will trigger additional demand for gas-fired power that could be met with clean energy sources and demand management.

Take Action:

The FERC public comment periods are still open for both of these pipelines. For the Atlantic Coast project, the FERC listening sessions are going on through early March.

File comments with FERC online or by mail. Details for Atlantic Coast hereDetails for Mountain Valley here (deadline has been extended).

Attend a listening session near you and tell FERC to deny these permits.

Contact your state environmental regulators (WV DEP, VA DEQ, NC DEQ) and tell them to deny state level permits for these pipelines.

Contact your State and Federal representatives and urge them to request that FERC reject the permit.

Sign the Pledge of Resistance to resist both pipelines

Join the call to #keepitintheground and reject all new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Join local groups, organize, #resist.

Download the briefings here.

Email this post to a friend.

Write to the editor about this post.

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Comments

We are told:
“...a ton of methane leaked to the atmosphere from the gas supply system is equivalent to 86 tons of carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential.”

What exactly does that mean? Sounds like methane will really ramp up the temperature, doesn’t it?  Competent reporters ought to be asking well thought out questions to nail that down. “Exactly how much, in degrees Celsius, will methane run up the temperature if it increases by “X” amount?” and, “How long will it take for that to happen?”  Truthful answers to those two questions are probably quite interesting.

Steve Case - Milwaukee, WI

By Steve Case on Wed, February 15, 2017 at 7:21 pm

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