Because I had a seat inside the meeting room at FERC's Clean Power Plan Overview last Thursday, I got a close-up view of the protesters. Most were older (as opposed to the college-student variety), they carried signs, wore matching red t-shirts and, after the first panel concluded, began to chant, “gas is dirty.” Though none of them explained what they meant, and the speakers so far had not focused on Building Block 2 (shifting dispatch from coal to natural gas combined-cycle generators), most of the rest of the crowd understood that they were protesting the Clean Power Plan (CPP) reliance on natural gas-fired power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Given that the temperature outside was in the single digits, I wanted to ask the group if they knew how the building was heated sufficient for them to wear only t-shirts, but that would have meant risking my seat, so I demurred.
The red shirts would have been pleased to hear, later in the day, that the US Department of Energy (DOE) recently completed a study titled “Natural Gas Infrastructure Implications of Increased Demand from the Electric Power Sector,” which found that compliance with the CPP would not require much additional spending for natural gas pipelines. Commissioner LaFleur “questioned [the study’s] conclusions,” including that increased demand for gas can be satisfied by better or more strategic utilization of existing pipeline capacity. Commissioner Clark was more blunt, pointing out that DOE gives the “false impression” that siting of pipelines will be easier than experience – particularly in the northeast – has proven it to be.
As if to prove him prescient, last night, FERC staff held a scoping meeting for the PennEast pipeline project, proposed to traverse six, mainly suburban and rural, counties over a 114-mile route in northeast Pennsylvania and west-central New Jersey. Hundreds turned out at the Ewing, New Jersey hearing (the first in New Jersey); most strongly opposed the pipeline; and many spoke in favor of the “no build” alternative. The director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, compared the natural gas companies to the British and Hessian invaders who tried “to take our land” in the 1700s (though some might argue that the land more precisely belonged to the British at that point). “This pipeline turns 50 years of public policy and change on its head,” he continued.
Supporters of the pipeline included union members (who need jobs) and the gas companies. Though they spoke of the increased reliability of supply for their customers, some of which are power plants, they did not discuss the significant CPP compliance obligations of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and the role that natural gas-fired generation will likely play in meeting those obligations.
Which brings us back to the meeting room at FERC. Toward the end of the afternoon, an Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) representative conceded that not all environmental policies align. Nuclear is carbon free, but it is nuclear. Wind and solar are expensive, intermittent, take up lots of space, and interfere with (even kill) birds and bats. The best wind resources are far from load and transmission lines are unsightly and may traverse protected areas. Natural gas plants are cleaner than coal and oil, but the gas has to be brought to the surface and transported, whether by pipeline or tanker truck or train. And, as the red shirts made clear, some think gas too is dirty. To meet the CPP goals in 2030, some policies will have to give.