If there’s one active front in the fight between climate activists and fossil fuel companies, it’s over fuel pipelines. The Keystone XL pipeline, crossing through the middle of the US, was first proposed in 2008 by a Canadian company. Several years of federal permitting processes culminated in President Obama rejecting the permit.
After President Trump was sworn in, he started to reverse course and soon granted a permit to this pipeline, as well as the similarly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which made national news after Native American groups staged large protests against it during the Obama years. Now a new front has opened up in the form of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which would run from West Virginia to southern North Carolina.
As with the other pipelines, activists in opposition to the project raise concerns over environmentally damaging leaks, as well as the project’s capacity to make fossil fuel mining more economical. Meanwhile, proponents assert that access to gas will boost industry in a rural area, and that gas is an effective “bridge fuel” to transition from coal to carbon-free sources.
In general, both arguments are sound and invoke a richer discussion about how to balance the economic needs of present people with our descendants. However, for the case of the ACP, arguments in favor fail to fully capture the specific harms this project would likely create.
North Carolina issued its first environmental permit for the project in 2018, following the footsteps of West Virginia, Virginia and the federal government, which had already given their approval. Duke Energy, which provides power to much of North Carolina, partnered with other power companies to construct this pipeline, which is intended to bring natural gas from shale fields in West Virginia to Duke Energy’s power plants in Robeson County.
The pipeline is needed, according to Duke Energy, for the company to replace its old coal plants with newer natural gas ones. In response to concerns over leaks, both from chemicals during the construction process and methane during operation, Governor Cooper also announced a $57.8 million environmental mitigation fund paid for by the energy companies.
While this seems a substantial sum of money, it would be less than 1% of the total cost of the operation, which according to a recent estimate is likely upwards of $7.5 billion. It also may not reflect the total costs of the operation. Earlier this year, activists petitioned to have the previously mentioned permit revoked because the plans had changed from opening two natural gas projects to nine.
The pipeline will also likely disproportionately impact Native Americans with the environmental consequences — as we’ve seen with many other pipelines — according to one NC State professor interviewed by The News & Observer. This would likely strain the resources of an already-disadvantaged group even further.
Despite these potential costs, there are a number of reasons why the pipeline might be useful from a climate perspective. According to one study, a significant proportion of the US’s decrease in CO2 emissions has stemmed from the switch between old coal plants and natural gas, both of which provide power independent of sun and wind levels.
However, the same study finds that natural gas harvested from shale through hydraulic fracturing — also known as ‘fracking’ — actually exceeds the emissions of coal, because methane leaks stemming from the process are much more potent than CO2. Although it exits the atmosphere faster than CO2, even over a 20-year average methane is still 86 times better at trapping heat than CO2.
In addition to the climate issues, the pipeline may not in fact be the economic boon promised by proponents. Several mayors from eastern North Carolina advocated in favor of the pipeline by saying it will encourage companies to settle there who need solid gas infrastructure. But a letter to the governor opposing the project asserts that the gas transported by the ACP will be more expensive than current gas and that it will mostly be used by Duke itself; therefore, it will not be a true source of gas infrastructure for companies in the area.
The climate crisis will need to look to any available resources to help minimize the amount of carbon emitted by humanity. While natural gas has historically helped with this task, there is no guarantee that it will do so in the future, much less be beneficial in every project. For the ACP, high costs and dubious climate benefits indicate that it may not be the low-carbon industry-grower we were promised.