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Pipelines have a place in clean energy


The writer is chief executive of AXPC, a US industry body for oil and natural gas exploration and production

Last week, two US energy groups gave up their six-year battle to build a natural gas pipeline, despite fighting all the way to the US Supreme Court to obtain a permit.

Dominion Energy and Duke Energy canned the Atlantic Coast Pipeline just weeks after their high court victory. They estimated that constructing the 600-mile project, which would have stretched from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina, would have created 17,000 jobs and $2.7bn in economic activity, and generated $28m in annual property tax revenue for local governments.

And, once operational, the pipeline could have reduced energy costs for families and businesses across North Carolina and Virginia, as regional coal-fired electric plants were retired in favour of new ones powered by lower-cost natural gas, the companies said. This is especially important during our economic recovery.

But misguided opposition from environmental groups means the pipeline will not happen. That is a shame.

Green activists are wrong to insist that building pipelines is incompatible with improving the environment. Michael Shellenberger argues in an article summarising his new book Apocalypse Never that it is unrealistic to expect that we can rely entirely on renewables because that would “require increasing the land used for energy from today’s 0.5 per cent to 50 per cent”.

We must replace dirtier fuels with clean ones. Natural gas, when combusted, has a lower emissions profile than coal, especially when it comes to pollutants that can make people sick at certain levels.

Increasing use of natural gas has resulted in US carbon dioxide emissions reaching their lowest levels in a generation, principally a result of coal-to-gas switching by power plants. 

About half of all American homes already use natural gas for electricity, heating, cooking and other purposes. By cutting off the distribution of Appalachian natural gas by stopping the pipeline or seeking to ban it from new construction in New York, activists are prioritising short-term wins at the expense of long-term reductions in emissions.

The demand for fuel will be filled, but not with renewables. One can see this in the north-east US, where liquefied natural gas was imported from Russia in 2018 to meet power needs. Perversely, restricting natural gas supply is like to lead some fuel users to switch back to coal, a clear loss for the environment. 

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and those like it across the nation, are the infrastructure needed to continue to derive benefits from the US shale revolution, which has powered our economy, supported good jobs, and strengthened our national security.

Use of natural gas has also furthered actual improvements in the environment. According to the US Energy Information Administration, American natural gas consumption increased by 3 per cent in 2019, reaching a record 85bn cubic feet per day. Natural gas now accounts for the largest share of electricity generation, after first surpassing coal in 2016. Between 29,000 and 62,000 miles of new pipeline will be needed over the next 25 years to accommodate rising energy demand.

Yet the Atlantic Coast Pipeline experience shows that the US will struggle to develop the necessary gas pipeline. In that case, the real losers will not be “big oil”. Rather they are the consumers who will have fewer choices for their power sources and the environment, if more people turn to more polluting choices.

It is time to step back and reassess the way we are approaching this issue and hold a data-based debate grounded in the realities of the possible. Without it, we are delegating our environmental policy to activists who are singularly focused on what they do not want, rather than open to all options.

 



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