Environmental Groups Call for Halt to New England Natural Gas Energy Conversion

Posted Aug. 3, 2016

MP3 Interview with Claire Miller, lead community organizer with Toxics Action Center, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


A new report that evaluated several recent research papers shows definitively that natural gas is not a bridge to a clean energy future. The report was released by Toxics Action Center, the Frontier Group, Environment America, and more than a dozen community groups across New England at a press conference held in Bridgeport, Connecticut in late July. Bridgeport is the current site of Connecticut's last remaining coal-fired power plant, which is slated to be converted to use as an natural gas energy source.

Bridgeport's coal plant that produces electricity for the region, not only contributes to climate change, but also pollutes the air, with harmful effects on the health of the low-income, mostly black and Latino community in its midst. The report, titled "Natural Gas and Global Warming: A Review of Evidences Finds that Methane Leaks Undercut the Climate Benefits of Gas," shows that older claims that gas has a modest impact on the climate are wrong, as they fail to account for the greenhouse gas effect of methane and high rates of methane leaks from gas infrastructure.

The coalition of New England environmental groups are calling for a halt to the region's gas infrastructure build-out, and a quick conversion to a true clean energy economy. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Claire Miller, lead community organizer with Toxics Action Center, about the report and the energy future the groups that released the report are working for.

CLAIRE MILLER: We're seeing the older fleet of old coal-fired power plants, old nuclear power plants, phase out, and in that wake of opportunity the gas industry is really hoping to bring out a whole new wave of gas-fired power plants, pipelines, compressor station, LNG tanks. You know, we're still kind of feeling the ripples of the fracking boom.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How has the energy situation changed over the past decade and how do big fossil fuel plants fit into it?

CLAIRE MILLER: You know, we're used to making electricity by big power plants. That's how we've run our grid since we electrified back in the '20s and '30s. And the grid of the future is different. It's thousands of solar panels scattered across roofs and on top of landfills. It's off-shore wind 30 miles out in federal waters. It's a fundamentally different vision. So there's this moment where we're either going to go down this road and build another whole generation of fossil fuels that will set us way back, or we actually have to take that leap and begin building that grid of the future.

BETWEEN THE LINES: A lot of gas projects that people are opposing – pipelines, power plants and more – are well on their way to construction. So do you think it's too late to stop them?

CLAIRE MILLER: That is a really interesting question. I hesitate to say that it's ever too late in that all the cards are ever as they seem to be. I was chatting with a community leader from Oxford (Connecticut) earlier this month, and there's some scandal around some of the financials around the plant out there, so who knows!? It's got all of its permits, to my knowledge, but that definitely doesn't mean it's a done deal. The same can be said for Bridgeport. A lot of things can happen and there's a lot of moving parts and policy in different parts of the region right now.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So the evidence is mounting that so-called natural gas is not the bridge to the clean energy future.

CLAIRE MILLER: Yeah, and I just want to acknowledge that ten years ago, most of the environmental community also thought that gas was going to be the bridge fuel, that it would ease our way into adopting a fundamentally different kind of grid that's more decentralized, where people get their power from the solar panels in their neighborhood. And I don't blame people for still thinking in that paradigm. But the evidence and the report we released today – which is a review of all the different studies that have looked into this – is that it's all a wash, when the fact is the gas leaks everywhere – every step of the way. When you're drilling it out of the ground, some of it leaks out. When you put it from the well-head into the trucks, some of it leaks out. When you put it from the trucks into the pipes, some of it leaks out. Every step of the way, (undecipherable), because methane is so much more potent than carbon, it's just a complete wash. And any of those benefits as far as global warming mitigation are just totally lost.

My recommendation to all of us in New England is to grapple with that as hard and as fast as we can. We already get almost 50 percent of our electricity from gas, which is a lot of eggs to have in one basket, and we do not want to continue to be dependent on such a volatile fuel source where the prices are going up and down – it's too risky for our economy and our climate – and let's go as fast as we can. Up here in Massachusetts, we've been battling back and forth because the legislature keeps putting caps on how many homes can actually install solar and get the benefits back. That kind of stifling of the industry is not what we need; we need to let it flourish as hard and as fast as possible. We've been a leader in the region on energy efficiency; there's still way more we can do. I feel like if we put the pedal to the metal we have the minds, we have the technology, we can do it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you share some of the data you have about how the different sources of energy have changed over time in New England?

CLAIRE MILLER: The trends are really interesting. So in the year 2000, New England was getting 15 percent of its electricity from gas, and in the year 2015 we were getting 49 percent. For nuclear power, it's almost the same; we've gone from 31 percent to 30 percent. The things that are decreasing are coal and oil. From 2000 to 2015, coal went from 18 percent of the pie to 4 percent of the pie – that's great, and from 2000 to 2015 oil went from 22 percent to 2 percent – also awesome. So we've seen this really great decrease in fossil fuel, but the unfortunate thing is that it's been almost entirely replaced by another fossil fuel, which ultimately is not getting us any gains for global warming. It's definitely better for air quality – I don't want to brush over that – but it's just like we also have this big elephant in the room called global warming.

For more information on the group's energy report visit Toxics Action Center at toxicsaction.org.

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