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Duke scientist: Stop building natural gas infrastructure now

Posted October 10, 2019 2:54 p.m. EDT
Updated October 11, 2019 11:43 a.m. EDT

Route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through eastern N.C.

— A climate scientist at Duke University, in a letter backed by two dozen former officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, called Thursday for a halt to natural gas development in North Carolina.

Drew Shindell, an earth sciences professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment, said Gov. Roy Cooper should push back on Duke Energy's plans to build multiple new natural gas plants in the state, essentially asking the governor to back a moratorium in the fight against climate change.

"The time is now to stop building more fossil fuel construction," Shindell, who is part of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said on a conference call with reporters.

The press conference was arranged by NC WARN, a climate activism group that has opposed Duke Energy's expansion plans for years. Shindell keyed not just on carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas responsible for rising average temperatures but on its less-covered cousin: methane.

Natural gas is methane, and when it leaks unburned into the atmosphere, it is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, trapping heat dozens of times more effectively. Methane has increased in the atmosphere as a fracking boom produced more natural gas, and Shindell said in his letter that, if as little as 1 to 3 percent is released as the gas is mined and shipped, "natural gas can be worse (potentially much worse) for the climate than coal."

Climate activists look to methane with some hope, though: It dissipates in the atmosphere much faster than carbon dioxide, so cutting back on emissions would have a quicker effect.

But natural gas is a cornerstone of Duke Energy's plans in North Carolina for the next several decades. The company, one of the country's largest electricity producers, is relying on it to retire coal plants and plans to pump the gas into North Carolina through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The 600-mile line into West Virginia already has its needed state and federal permits, but it has been held up by a court decision the U.S. Supreme Court said last week it would hear.

NC WARN Executive Director Jim Warren called on the Cooper administration to reconsider a key pipeline permit, which has been appealed at the state level, and use his bully pulpit to press the issue.

"Especially while that project is stalled by the federal court," Warren said. "We are in extraordinary times. We need governors to stretch out and take measures that would benefit all of the public."

A Duke Energy spokeswoman, responding to the letter Thursday, said the company has already significantly reduced its carbon footprint and noted a recently announced plan to hasten the closure of coal plants.

"North Carolina is leading the way with more than 50 percent of its energy provided today with carbon-free sources and is second in the nation in installed solar," spokeswoman Meredith Archie said in an email.

Archie said natural gas is "critical" to covering daily electricity needs and balancing the intermittent nature of renewable energy, which depend largely on wind and sun. Natural gas, she said, "is safe, clean and affordable."

Dale Evarts, a former EPA official living in Raleigh, joined Shindell on the call Thursday, and he collaborated on the letter to Cooper. Together, they argued that renewable energy is becoming more affordable than natural gas and that battery storage improvements will eventually allow the industry to skip over natural gas, transitioning from coal-fired plants to renewables like wind and solar without relying on methane as a bridge.

As renewable costs come down, new gas plants "are very likely to end up as stranded assets," they said in the letter.

Shindell and Evarts also pointed to Cooper's own Clean Energy Plan, which drew criticism from environmental activists for failing to address methane emissions, and an executive order the governor signed last year on climate change.

"Unless the Clean Energy Plan can envision a future without any new gas plants, it will not be a plan that protects North Carolina from the serious impacts of climate change as you intended," the letter states.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality noted that the draft plan recommends adding "societal and environmental factors" to the calculations used to make decisions on energy policy. That could potentially factor in some of the issues Shindell and Evarts spoke to Thursday, making natural gas a more expensive proposition on paper as health and environmental impacts are factored in.

But Shindell said that language is "helpful but insufficient," and both men said the details of implementation on that issue will be key. Cooper, Evarts said, "will necessarily need to continue to push his agencies and the legislature"

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin said in an email that the department appreciates the input from Shindell's letter and will include it in the process as the administration's Clean Energy Plan is finalized.

Coooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email that the governor, "is committed to a 100% renewable energy North Carolina, and the Clean Energy Plan sets our state on a workable path to get there."

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