Monthly Archives: July, 2017

What Northam is Missing in the Pipeline Debate


Recently, Democratic candidate for the Virginia gubernatorial race, Ralph Northam suggested that if the ACP and MVP pipelines could be built safely, he would support them, which sounds nice if you don’t understand a thing about the pipelines that are being proposed or their impact on climate change. If you do, however, there are major issues. Here’s the main thing Northam and moderate Democrats miss about the pipeline debate: there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ pipeline. The infrastructure to carry natural gas or oil should not be built — regardless of how technically safe the infrastructure is. Why?

Although Natural gas is nearly 50 percent less carbon-intensive when it is burned — it is also made up mostly of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Because natural gas is difficult to control and capture, it often leaks during drilling, transporting, and storage. Recent estimates have shown that natural gas is not actually helping to meet climate goals, due to the amount of methane being leaked by the natural gas industry.

This should be a non-starter for progressive Democrats. The Paris climate agreement informs countries like the United States that we need to reduce our carbon pollution by 80% by 2050 in order to avoid unacceptable risks of a destabilized climate. To do our part, Virginia needs to be taking steps to reduce our carbon pollution by 80%. But we are not, and the pipelines are going to make that situation even worse.

Glen Besa, Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club has done some excellent work crunching the numbers:

“Dominion’s current plan for meeting Virginians’ electricity needs (per its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan) start from a 2017 base level of 40 million tons/year of carbon pollution. The company proposes to actually increase its carbon pollution over the next 25 years by at least 5% and possibly by as much as 34%, not including the new emissions from its pipeline. That’s right, we need to reduce our carbon 80% by 2050, and Dominion actually intends to increase its carbon pollution. That’s irresponsible, and McAuliffe and Northam should say so publicly.”

“A conservative estimate of the emissions from the Atlantic Coast pipeline (ACP) is 40.7 million tons/year and as much as 68.4 million tons per year. Using the more conservative estimate of carbon emissions associated with the Atlantic Coast pipeline, Dominion would double its annual total carbon emissions from 40 million tons per year to 80 million tons per year. Additionally, total carbon pollution emissions estimates from the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) range from 54 to 91 million tons per year.”

“Recognizing that a responsible climate policy will reduce our total carbon pollution emissions by 80% by 2050, Dominion shows no intention of reducing carbon pollution from its power plants and proposes to double those emissions with the Atlantic Coast pipeline. Then add the 54 to 91 million tons per year associated with the Mountain Valley pipeline. With the pollution from these two pipelines, Virginia is not going to come close to meeting its carbon budget. Had we taken a similar approach to the Chesapeake Bay clean up, the Bay would today be an open sewer.”

Because climate change is real and devastating and adding pipelines for more natural gas consumption is pounding in more nails to a quickly sealing coffin, we shouldn’t even be having this debate. Moderate Democrats like McAuliffe and Northam, by enabling entities like Dominion to continue their worst practices, are distorting the discussion and making it that much more difficult to save the planet and life on Earth as we know it. What makes this even worse? The pipelines aren’t being built out of some desperate energy need that we must furnish immediately, rather they are being built for the lucrative sale of natural gas –which is why they are designed for “over capacity.”  The pipelines are not about supplying our own energy needs, they are about making money for Dominion and other folks involved in the pipeline chain. Dominion seeds their prospects by donating to every member of the Virginia General Assembly, including Ralph Northam, so this is as much about a good-ole-boy way of doing things as it is about legitimate energy concerns.

Under these circumstances, anti-pipeline activists are threatening to withhold their support for Northam. Included among these is Jennifer Lewis, president of Friends of Augusta, who is also the vice chair of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee. She says she will not vote for Northam unless he has a change of heart about this issue.

Moderate Democrats are wringing their hands about the withdrawal of support and are decrying this kind of activism, though, it should be noted they don’t seem to be going out of their way to change the mind of Ralph Northam on the issue. Maybe they should consider having the candidate change his position on what is becoming a referendum on climate change, rather than bashing activists who have worked over time on this issue and other issues (like women’s rights, healthcare, etc) and implying that they are somehow treacherous for not lining up behind what amounts to a corporate sell out?

For those interested in further reading, this article does a nice job of summing up our current situation. Though some have argued it is too extreme, I think it’s better to have a screaming Cassandra at this juncture, rather than a foolish Pangloss (we might recall from our Greek history that although Cassandra was ignored, she was right. Pangloss was the silly philosopher in Candide who suggested to the naive Candide that this was the best of all possible worlds. He was wrong.)

If you want a moderating view, this article does a nice job of softening the desperation inherent in the first link, but note please, its optimism lies in the hope that we take the warnings seriously.

This paragraph is instructive “… a strategy for addressing climate change is coming together. The cost of solar and wind energy are plunging worldwide; carmakers are promising to take more of their fleet electric, and the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from human activity has stabilized over the past three years. Decarbonizing will be an arduous and difficult global project—but technological development and government policy are finally bringing it into the realm of the possible.”

I don’t think it’s too outlandish for Democrats–even so-called moderate Democrats– to work for a civilization that can survive without raging inequality (where the desperately poor and impoverished are harmed the worst by the effects of climate change). To get to that point we have to move off of fossil fuels. That means no more pipelines, among other things. As I say, it shouldn’t even be up for debate.

Northam’s assertion that he can build a ‘safe’ pipeline is inherently misleading and worse, shows that he hardly understands the parameters of the policy discussion he is having. He needs to educate himself and change his position.

~by Jack Johnson