Why We Must Fight Gas-fired Power Plants

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

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The Ban Ki Moon U.N. Climate Summit is shortly coming to New York City. As we march and teach workshops at climate convergences, the media is likely to focus on the story of the Obama administration’s “Clean Power Plan” moving us away from coal in order to mitigate climate change. The story won’t be told that this plan will do more harm than good, mainly by ignoring methane and enabling a huge move from coal to gas-fired power plants.

The plan also does more harm than good by not regulating CO2 from trash incineration (2.5 times as bad as coal for the climate) and biomass incineration (50% worse), thus encouraging a large-scale conversion to burning everything from trash to trees. Other EPA deregulation efforts allowing waste burning to escape regulation by calling waste a “fuel” are also clearing the way for this toxic, climate-cooking disaster.

A leading researcher for a major fracking corporation recently confided in me that this move from coal to gas will spell disaster for climate change, confirming that if only about 3% of the gas escapes, it’s as bad as burning coal. Actual leakage rates are far higher (4-9% just at the fracking fields and more in pipelines and distribution systems), but it was most interesting to hear this person admit that the industry will never get below that level of leakage to become less harmful than coal.

We now know that methane is 86 to 105 times as potent as CO2 over a 20-year time-frame -- we’re in real trouble if we keep using the outdated “20 times over 100 years” figure EPA maintains, and permit this new generation of gas-burning to be built.

Why is it strategic to focus on the power plants?  Read on…

1) Gas burned for electricity is the largest source of gas demand since 2007. From 1997 to 2013, it more than doubled and is poised to keep growing.

2) Stopping power plants is more winnable than fighting fracking, liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, pipelines or compressor stations. Stopping fracking one community at a time isn't a winning strategy when the industry has thousands of communities targeted, and rural neighbors pit against neighboring landowners desperate for lease money. State and regional bans and moratoria have been effective so far, but LNG terminals, pipelines and compressor stations have federal preemption aspects that make them hard to fight through local or state government.

Fighting proposed LNG export terminals also has the "weak link" problem.  Ten years ago, when we were fighting LNG import terminals, there were 40 proposals throughout the U.S., but the industry and government officials admitted they only needed six – two each on the east, west and gulf coasts. Now that they're planning export terminals, there are nearly 30 proposals, and the same dynamic is at play, where the industry has stated in their conferences that they only need two on each coast, after which they'll toss out the rest of their proposals and "let environmentalists take the credit." Cynical as that is, it's not a strategy we can defeat if we're trying to attack gas demand, since it's unlikely we can beat enough to prevent the planned export volumes -- especially due to federal preemption and the clustering of most proposals on the oil- and gas-dominated Gulf Coast, where it's far harder to stop them.

Each gas-fired power plant blocked is a certain amount of gas burning and fracking prevented, while we can stop over 20 LNG terminals without putting a dent in planned export volumes. While work against the LNG export terminals is commendable, it should not be prioritized over stopping the rush to build hundreds of gas-burning power plants.

3) Attacking proposals can only be done in a certain time window, or we're doomed to roughly 30 years of power plant operation and gas demand. Although coal power plants are dirtier to live near, all of the funding and resources being put into closing coal plants while ignoring (or endorsing) new gas power plants, is misguided. Existing power plants can be tackled at any time, but proposals have to be fought when they're proposed, or it's too late. Also, coal production has peaked in the U.S., prices are going up, and gas is undercutting coal. It's effectively illegal to build new coal power plants and the industry is already moving quickly to shut and replace coal. The question is:  will we allow a switch from coal to gas, or force a change to conservation, efficiency, wind and solar?

So, if there are plans for gas-burning power plants in your area, whether it’s a new plant, an expansion or conversion of an existing plant, or reopening of a closed plant, please be in touch so we can plug you in with others who are fighting these. There is strength in numbers!