New York’s Plan to Fight Climate Change Is Flawed
All the hoopla over a clean, green energy future in New York may lead to more fracking (in other states), more methane, and more global warming.
New York State made news in December 2014 when the Department of Environmental Conservation announced it would ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas across the entire state. Environmental activists cheered as looming disaster was averted; but in the year before the ban, as the fracking fight raged on all fronts, the New York State Energy Planning Board was drafting a new State Energy Plan. The State Energy Plan adopted in June 2015 purports to be a roadmap to lead New York to a new energy future. In fact it commits New York to reliance on fracked gas, extracted not in New York (for now) but in neighboring states. With glossy color pages and dreamy green prose, the authors of the Energy Plan conveniently jumble the words “clean energy” with “renewables”. They invite readers to presume that “clean energy” means renewables. The Plan employs the term “clean energy” 110 times in its first 96 pages before it finally slips in the Big Lie: “renewables” such as solar, wind, hydro and tidal energy resources are “clean” and so is natural gas. By sleight of hand, fracked gas is thereby cleansed and the gas industry is given free rein to claim that natural gas is endorsed by the State.
Long before the new State Energy Plan was released, the “clean” gas myth propagated by the gas industry was shown to be false. Cornell University scientists Dr. Robert Howarth and Dr. Anthony Ingraffea presented a groundbreaking paper in 2011, nearly three years before the draft Energy Plan came out, entitled “Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations,” in which they documented substantial greenhouse gas impacts from methane—the main ingredient of natural gas. They looked back up the pipe, from the burner all the way to the gas well, and added up all of the methane emissions of the entire process of drilling, fracking, extraction, transmission, and distribution. They found that when all sources of methane emissions are included, natural gas is equal to or worse than coal as a driver of climate change. The report was covered in the New York Times, so the Energy Board cannot claim to have missed it.
Howarth and Ingraffea continued their investigations and in an April 2015 update, they presented further evidence that a sharp reduction of natural gas use is vital to climate stability. Natural gas was clearly not “clean” in 2011, and the research since then confirms that assertion. The State Energy Board chose to ignore this research; there was too much to be gained by promulgating a Big Lie.
The public is more susceptible to a Big Lie than a small lie. Everyone tells a small lie now and then, and we often know when others are telling us a small lie. But a Big Lie passes for truth, easily, because we have no personal experience with fabricating or detecting colossal untruths, and only with great effort can we accept that others, especially trusted figures, would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. The Big Lie incorporating methane into New York’s “clean” energy future did not go unnoticed by the environmental community. But “clean” natural gas was funding our Public Radio and Public Television—it had to be true.
The Big Lie’s full implications became apparent when the details of yet another State planning initiative called Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) came to light. REV calls for restructuring of the electrical generation and supply system in New York State. The current system employs central generating facilities and a cumbersome grid of distribution lines to deliver the electricity to customers. The REV plan centers on creating an interconnected array of microgrids—each microgrid with the generation and/or storage capacity to function independently, but also able to connect to the larger network. Smart-grid technology would manage peak demand periods and optimize the flow of electricity between each microgrid and the larger network. Beguiled by a state-sponsored promotional campaign, the public has been led to believe that the generating facilities at the microgrids will be renewables. However, nothing in the REV plan requires this. In lockstep with its State Energy Plan progenitor, the REV dazzles the public with renewable possibilities while it enables and promotes the expansion of our dependence on natural gas. REV will likely lead to the proliferation of gas-fired generation on many microgrids, just as gas has already attained dominance in today’s centralized generation system.
For proponents of renewable energy, the inconvenient truth is that gas competes well in either a centralized or distributed generation environment. Unlike coal or nuclear power, gas-fired power plants can be big or small, and they can be easily expanded. They also power up and down quickly, and, unlike renewables, are able to do so independent of the weather or time of day. Another factor, one that the industry is less likely to brag about publicly, is that smaller facilities can glide through the environmental permitting process quickly, even if the total amount of pollutants from multiple facilities is high. Facilities with less than 25 Megawatts of generation capacity can also escape compliance with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program among northeastern states.
Of course the industry also likes to boast that gas today is cheap. An ideology embedded through the REV proceedings is one of “not picking winners and losers” and letting “market forces” prevail. So in the absence of incentives that clearly favor renewables over gas, or any restriction on new fossil fuel generators, those forces will ensure that fracked gas wins.
Keith Schue is a retired electrical engineer who now volunteers for Otsego 2000, an environmental group located in Cooperstown, NY. At a recent REV public hearing in Binghamton, he spoke about the REV plan’s shortcomings, particularly those relating to the lack of actual progress towards meeting the State’s renewable electrical energy and climate goals:
[The] goals clearly identified in the New York State Energy Plan are for New York to obtain fifty percent of its electricity from renewables by the year 2030, and a forty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by that year….What I’ve not seen is a meaningful assessment of how those programs stack up to achieve those numerical goals in the next fifteen years… This year, 2015, was the year when we were supposed to achieve thirty percent renewables, and we haven’t done that. We haven’t come close.
Schue reviewed a pie chart with the Administrative Law Judge and the PSC Commissioner conducting the hearing, to illustrate what it would look like for New York to reach its goal of meeting 50% of its electricity needs with renewables by 2030. (The goal is tacked into the State Energy Plan on a single page with no explanation or analysis, seeming almost like an afterthought.) Assuming an optimistic 20% reduction in electricity demand due to efficiency improvements, Schue explained that to meet the State’s 50% goal, New York will need 75,000 Gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity from renewables annually by 2030. The State currently gets about 32,500 GWh of its yearly electricity needs from renewables; that leaves a gap of 42,500 GWh, which must be built in less than fifteen years. However, as Schue explained, the combined output of the entire New York Sun solar initiative and the proposed Rockaways offshore wind project (to which the State has not yet committed) will only fill a tiny fraction of that need:
We have a long way to go…. One thing that is absolutely certain is that we will not be able to meet our renewable energy goals if the State continues to approve more fossil fueled power plants including gas-fired power plants. That’s just piling more into the wrong side of that pie…. So it is disturbing that REV encourages more use of gas and encourages the development of new gas fired power plants. That’s absolutely self-defeating. The bottom line is that unless REV adopts policies to the contrary, gas ends up winning in the distributed energy platform that’s been proposed…
Coal has already been almost completely replaced by gas in New York State. It’s about four percent right now. If gas also replaces nuclear then we’re going to go backwards. …So we’ve got a difficult situation on our hands. What it may mean is that we will probably have to increase the amount of renewables beyond the fifty percent in order to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals. Gas, fracked gas is the problem. The best incentive for renewables is to not approve sources of energy that are not renewables….
The only way for REV to succeed is to abandon its support for fracked gas and fracked gas power. Otherwise, REV stands for “REVERSE” and moving backwards on climate change.
While the fracking debate has been tabled in New York, the gas infrastructure invasion is accelerating. Two gas pipelines have been proposed to cross the northern Catskill Mountains. The Constitution Pipeline (CP), which already took hundreds of acres from landowners by eminent domain, awaits only a water quality certification from the NY Department of Environmental Conservation. The second, in the early stages of review, is the Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline. Federal filings reveal commitments to deliver 235,000 Dekatherms of gas to an unnamed power plant developer. A new gas-fired power plant along the CP/NED corridor could offset power lost with the closure of nuclear power plants. Pumping out millions of tons of additional greenhouse gases annually for each nuclear plant closed would eviscerate New York’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. If the fugitive emissions of those fracked gas supplies are accounted for, those emissions double.
Of course, the proliferation of gas-fired generation could come in the form of a multitude of smaller facilities. Remember that a central theme in the new REV paradigm is Distributed Generation—lots of small generators scattered all across the countryside, small enough to avoid compliance with RGGI, and cheap enough to price-out renewable energy developers. Either way, the immediate environmental costs of powering the profligate energy habits of New York will likely be borne by rural residents.
The Big Lie of “clean” natural gas empowers fracking in neighboring states, as well the build-out of natural gas infrastructure and gas-fired compressors and power plants that dump more toxics and climate-killing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A host of other hazards and harms emanating from the Big Lie will become manifest on varying timescales—already apparent is a profound lack of trust in government by those who understand the Big Lie. For citizens, businessmen, and entrepreneurs hoping to create a renewable energy-based future, the Big Lie directly undermines their efforts. With its false “clean” status, natural gas will compete, in the NY “Clean Energy Fund” and “Green Bank” companion programs to REV, for the same funds that have been pledged to fight climate change and support renewables—thus the State will be making public investments to support efforts in the wrong direction.
As long as the Big Lie remains the crux of the State’s energy paradigm, investors will continue to invest in gas-fired equipment and gas infrastructure. Homeowners will cheerfully install gas-fired water heaters and furnaces, assured by the Big Lie that they are being environmentally responsible. Utilities will install gas turbine generators as the “least cost” and “clean” solution to their energy issues.
Even if the Big Lie is finally repudiated and expunged from New York’s energy policy paradigm, its legacy will continue to stalk us. By continuing to burn gas for another decade or two, we may be providing the final nudge that tips our climatic energy balance beyond a point of no return. We have no way of knowing for sure where that point is…..350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 400, 450? In the words of Dr. Ingraffea at Cornell, “This is an experiment that we should not be doing.” Even warming the atmosphere just a few degrees could trigger massive releases of methane and carbon dioxide currently locked in Arctic permafrost or seabed hydrates. Such releases would dwarf man’s contributions of greenhouse gases and accelerate global warming in a feedback loop that we have no way to stop.
As grandparents and parents, as citizens, as fellow travelers on this pale blue speck, what can we do—before it’s too late—to get back to a sustainable course? For starters, can we up-end the Big Lie? Nicole Dillingham is a retired lawyer and the Board President of Otsego 2000. Nicole thinks that the Big Lie can and must be defeated:
The tactics of the gas companies are eerily similar to those of the tobacco industry. First, deny there is risk. The claim that natural gas is “clean” is as false and deceptive as advertising that cigarettes labeled “low tar” or “light” were less harmful. Such deceptive advertising was found to be in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Lanham Act and state unfair competition laws.
The advertising campaigns of the oil and gas industry should be subject to the same legal scrutiny that has been applied to tobacco purveyors. The laws against deceptive advertising forbid inconsistent comparisons. For example, natural gas may be cleaner burning than coal at combustion, but the processes of drilling, fracking, extraction, transmission, compression and delivery, with methane leakage and other harmful emissions at every point, must be clearly disclosed to render the claim that gas is “clean” not misleading. Exxon Mobil was recently subpoenaed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to produce records that it suppressed internal data that confirmed fossil fuel impacts on climate change, even as it funded climate change deniers and publicly denied any connection.
Claims that natural gas is the solution to climate change are deeply flawed. Greenwashing, the promotion of environmental benefits which do not in fact exist, plays upon public fear—the power of such marketing to a public alarmed by climate change and eager for a better future is clear. If our public policies are to genuinely promote our health and well-being, the Big Lie must be debunked.
Killing the Big Lie does not mean that we have to go back to square one and start over on a renewable energy policy. If the Big Lie is excised from New York’s REV plan, many of the remaining aspects of REV have the potential to set a new course towards sustainability. If gas is correctly classified as a dirty resource, if the State prohibits funding and incentive programs associated with REV from being used to support gas, and if the State exercises its authority to say “no” to proposals for additional fossil power plants including gas, New York can actually become a leading force in the fight to avoid climate catastrophe.
Of course turning away from fracked gas would bring on additional challenges—dealing with intermittency and peak demand and a host of other technical problems—but those challenges will never be effectively addressed if utilities are allowed to fall back on gas as the solution. There are clean alternatives to fossil fuels—conservation, peak-shifting, grid balancing, pumped hydro storage, battery storage (especially as electric cars become more numerous)—solutions that make sense but cannot compete against an industry that externalizes so many of its costs. Instituting a substantial fee on carbon—both carbon dioxide and methane—would be one way of offsetting some of those costs.
The gas industry and the utilities have baffled the electorate with anti-science and seduced the governing elite with big money and rhetorical sleight of hand. To meet our energy and environmental goals, the Big Lie must be exposed, and the REV plan must be revised. Promotion of the current Energy Plan and REV is complicity in a lie of infamous proportion. Approval of more gas-fired power plants and other gas infrastructure in New York is conspiracy to subvert public health for private profits.
Action on the Constitution pipeline application, any day now, will let New Yorkers know which way Governor Andrew Cuomo has decided to go. Will he listen to climate scientists and environmentalists, or will the gas industry prove that New York is just another State that they have bought and paid for?
Speak truth to power. Your silence is consent.
Governor Andrew Cuomo: email@example.com
Basil Seggos, Commissioner of NYDEC: firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Kauffman, Chairman of Energy & Finance: email@example.com
Kathleen Burgess, Secretary to the Public Service Commission: firstname.lastname@example.org
State Energy Plan—http://energyplan.ny.gov/Plans/2015
Howarth & Ingraffea 2011–http://www.acsf.cornell.edu/Assets/ACSF/docs/attachments/Howarth-EtAl-2011.pdf
Howarth & Ingraffea 2015–https://youtu.be/sq2ro95DAzQ
Reforming the Energy Vision–http://www3.dps.ny.gov/W/PSCWeb.nsf/All/CC4F2EFA3A23551585257DEA007DCFE2?OpenDocument
Compressor station emissions–http://www.environmentalhealthproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Compressor-station-emissions-and-health-impacts-02.24.2015.pdf
Woods Hole on Thawing Permafrost–http://whrc.org/u-s-scientists-warn-leaders-of-dangers-of-thawing-permafrost/