Nineteen now-pending pipeline projects, if constructed, would let enough natural gas flow out of the Appalachian basin to cause the entire US to blow through its climate pledges, ushering the world into more than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, a newly released report by Oil Change International concludes.
Even if the Environmental Protection Agency's recently-announced methane rules manage to slash leaks from new natural gas infrastructure as planned, building those pipelines would be catastrophic for the climate, the researchers warn.
"All together, these 19 pending pipeline projects would enable 116 trillion cubic feet of additional gas production by 2050," the report, entitled A Bridge Too Far: How Appalachian Basin Gas Pipeline Expansion Will Undermine US Climate Goals, says. "The currently planned gas production expansion in Appalachia would make meeting US climate goals impossible, even if the [Obama] Administration's newly proposed methane rules are successful in reducing methane leakage by 45 percent."
Why do these pipelines matter so much?
In part, it's because right now there's a pipeline bottleneck that's keeping some of the gas from the East Coast -- states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia where the Marcellus shale has sparked a drilling rush -- from being tapped. But building these proposed lines would let drillers pump much more gas out over the next several decades. "All together, these 19 pending pipeline projects would enable 116 trillion cubic feet of additional gas production by 2050," the report concludes.
And in part, those 19 pipeline projects matter so much because building pipelines sets in motion changes that will last for decades. "New gas power plants and pipelines are designed to last at least 40 years," the report notes. "Once the initial capital has been spent on them, they will likely operate even at a loss to the detriment of cleaner sources."
"Expanded natural gas production is a bridge to climate disaster," said Stephen Kretzmann, Executive Director of Oil Change International. "Our report shows that even if we entirely eliminated emissions from coal and oil, the emissions from the natural gas boom alone would still blow our climate budget."
Building out gas infrastructure is risky for consumers as well as the climate. While natural gas is historically cheap at the moment, there's always the potential for things to change dramatically over the next several decades, since the natural gas market is infamous for its sharp swings, dramatic price collapses followed by sudden spikes.
The natural gas industry often argues that gas can help with the transition to renewables because wind and solar are intermittent sources of power -- the wind's not always blowing and the sun's not always shining. So if electrical power plants can switch over to natural gas fired plants when wind and solar ebb (possible because natural gas plants can be fired up or switched off faster than coal-fired plants), then the power grid can be kept stable, gas advocates argue.
The new report tackles that issue head-on, arguing that renewables are ready to stand on their own. "In many parts of the US, renewable energy is today the lowest-cost and lowest-impact means to add generation capacity to our electricity system," the authors write. "Battery storage and grid management technology are ready to even out the intermittency of wind and solar. Widely held assumptions about the need for fossil fuel baseload power and limits to renewable energy penetration are unravelling fast."
Failing to switch away from natural gas will carry serious climate consequences. If current US policies are kept in place, the Energy Information Administration predicts that gas production will rise 55 percent by 2040 -- and carbon emissions from energy production will drop just 4 percent, according to the Annual Energy Outlook 2016. But, the Oil Change report notes, staying below 2 degrees requires the US to slash emissions 83 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.
"In other words," it adds, "even if gas were the only source of greenhouse gases in 2040, it would still blow the US carbon budget."
And that's taking the EPA's new methane rules, announced in May, into account and using conservative estimates for how much natural gas well leak from newly built pipelines. The researchers used methane leakage rates of 3.8 percent -- even though they acknowledge that peer-reviewed research concludes that leaks may in reality be as high as 12 percent.
Meanwhile, crucial decisions for the climate are being made right now, at a time when a shale drilling rush powered by fracking has helped drive natural gas prices to historic lows and when coal-fired plants are increasingly being retired.
But right now, the US is building infrastructure that will make the country increasingly reliant on natural gas. "In 2010, there were only 493 natural gas-powered electric plants in the United States," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported this week. "By 2015, the number of plants more than tripled to 1,740, and nearly all of the new plants are combined-cycle ones," or natural gas plants that are designed provide power 24 hours a day -- not as backup for renewable energy sources.
Globally, there is a rapidly closing window to make key infrastructure decisions -- a window that could close as soon as next year. "Most recently, a study out of Oxford University examined the '2°C Capital Stock' to see how close the world is to building the electricity generation infrastructure that, if utilized to the end of its economic life, would take the world past the 2°C goal," the Oil Change report, which was also endorsed by roughly a dozen national and local environmental organizations including 350.org, Earthworks, and the Sierra Club, notes. "The disturbing conclusion they came to is that we will be there in 2017."
The federal government has taken some steps to reduce methane leaks writ large. Earlier this month, the EPA announced rules that it said would reduce methane from landfills by roughly a third -- adding up to the equivalent of 8.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Unlike the agency's new rules for the oil and gas industry, the landfill rules apply to both new and existing locations.
Environmentalists have called on the Obama administration to expand its recently announced methane controls to cover existing pipelines, wells, and other oil and gas infrastructure as well. And in a new report the Government Accountability Office focused on methane leaks from federal lands, faulting the Bureau of Land Management for poor record-keeping on flaring, venting and leaks on government-owned land.
But the federal government isn't the only regulator involved, since states shoulder most of the responsibility for oil and gas controls due to exceptions and exemptions for the drilling industry from many federal environmental statutes.
Yesterday, California moved forward with proposed rules that would drive methane emissions from new and existing sites down by as much as 45 percent. Those rules would make California the second state after Colorado to issue its own methane rules.
"California's new methane protections are an important step forward and will rein in pollution from one of the dirtiest industries in the state," said Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action in a statement yesterday responding to that announcement. "EPA should follow California's lead and enact national methane standards for existing oil and gas infrastructure."
Meanwhile along the East Coast, whistleblowers have warned that another major new pipeline project, the "Algonquin Incremental Market" pipeline -- not among the 19 projects covered by the new report -- is being constructed without proper inspection, increasing the risk of leaks and explosions, as DeSmog reported earlier this week.
"There's a strong and vital movement of people throughout Appalachia who are standing up to protect their communities and their land from pipelines and the increase in fracking they will bring," Mr. Kretzmann added. "This report makes it clear that all of these people are fighting for our climate too."