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The Other Keystone | The Nation

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The Other Keystone

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Natural Gas

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Don’t Be a Fracking Gashole. Thus urged one of the signs at a boisterous climate change rally held in front of Baltimore’s City Hall on February 20. As unseasonably warm breezes spun the blades of the tiny windmills many of the 800-plus protesters held aloft, a dozen students carried a mock pipeline made of white plastic through downtown. Black letters on the pipeline announced a new front in America’s escalating battle over fracking and climate change: Stop Cove Point.

“We want to make Cove Point as well-known as Keystone,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), which organized the rally. Keystone XL, to use the official name of the project that has emerged as a litmus test of President Obama’s climate policy, is the pipeline that would carry carbon-dense tar sands oil from Canada across the Midwest to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Cove Point is where the Dominion Resources corporation wants to build a $3.8 billion facility to turn natural gas—much of it fracked and then transported to the plant via pipelines across the mid-Atlantic region—into a liquid that can be exported overseas. As one of twenty-one liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities seeking approval from federal regulators, Cove Point is shaping up as the next flash point between Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and the growing grassroots movement to stop global warming.

Just as Keystone represents an extreme form of oil drilling—tar sands oil is steamed from underground after the earth above has been shaved of vegetation—so Cove Point represents the new frontier of post-fracking natural gas production. By connecting vast underground fossil fuel deposits with the infrastructure needed to bring them to market, Keystone and Cove Point threaten to unleash massive greenhouse gas emissions. Both are also aimed predominantly at export rather than domestic markets.

“Cove Point, if built, would lead to the emission of more greenhouse gases than all seven coal-fired power plants in Maryland combined,” Heather Mizeur, a Democratic candidate for governor who addressed the Baltimore rally, told me. Cove Point’s huge carbon footprint is rooted in geography, physics and its status as an export facility. Currently, most natural gas travels to market via pipelines, which limits US producers to customers in North America. Only by turning natural gas into a liquid that can be loaded onto ships can US producers reach overseas markets. But it takes enormous amounts of energy to chill natural gas to 260 degrees below zero, the temperature at which it liquefies. To produce that energy, Dominion proposes to build a separate 130-megawatt power plant at Cove Point.

But most of Cove Point’s projected climate footprint would occur off-site, because building such an export facility would call forth, in the words of the CCAN website, “a surge of new…’fracking’ for gas in our region.” Much of this additional gas would come from the Marcellus Shale deposits in Pennsylvania, made famous by the documentary Gasland. And although President Obama and other policy-makers often describe natural gas as a climate-friendlier alternative to oil and coal, more and more evidence indicates that natural gas is much more damaging than previously realized.

As Tidwell and Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of the activist group 350.org, recently explained on Politico, methane, the key component in natural gas, is eighty-four times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a twenty-year period—the very period when the battle to limit global warming to a (somewhat) manageable amount will be won or lost. Methane can leak from pipelines, some of which are 100 or more years old, and is also released when natural gas is pressurized and liquified. The measured rates of leakage are high enough to make exporting natural gas no better from a climate perspective than burning coal, Tidwell and McKibben argue. Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien disputed these assertions; citing a report by oil industry consultant ICF International, he told The Nation that gas exported from Cove Point “would have [greenhouse gas] emissions 43 to 52 percent lower than coal” and that “American ingenuity” would reduce pipeline leakage rates, further lowering emissions.

Even if that’s true, do additional fossil fuel investments make sense today? In the past year, such establishment voices as the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said that roughly two-thirds of the earth’s remaining fossil fuel must be left underground if humanity is to have a decent chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Make no mistake, even a 2˚C temperature rise would have devastating impacts: record drought would become the norm across the western third of North America; 98 percent of the world’s coral would die; summer ice cover in the Arctic would disappear. Nevertheless, 2˚C is preferable to the apocalyptic 6˚C humanity would face if business as usual continues. If, as McKibben puts it, Keystone amounts to “a poster child” for the kind of project that henceforth must be ruled out, Cove Point belongs in the same category.

Tidwell wants to leverage the opposition to Cove Point to accelerate the transition to a clean energy future. Inspired by a bill Minnesota’s House of Representatives passed requiring 40 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, the CCAN director is encouraging “40 Percent or Bust!”, a similar effort nationwide. “If we could get ten to twelve of the most progressive states in America to lift a rally cry of ‘40 percent or bust!’—I’m talking Minnesota, California, Maryland, New England—it would call forth so much clean electricity that it would drive the price of wind and solar down to where the decarbonization of the national grid would become inevitable,” Tidwell told The Nation.

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Complicating matters is the connection between Cove Point and, improbable as it may sound, the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Congressional Republicans and other allies of Big Oil seized on the crisis to demand an increase of US natural gas exports, something that could be achieved only from facilities like Cove Point. The Obama administration echoed these calls, albeit in less bellicose terms. A March 6 front-page story in The New York Times reported “a State Department initiative to export American natural gas to Europe as a lever against Russia,” long the leading supplier of gas to Ukraine and Europe. An editorial in the next day’s paper noted that the US Energy Department had approved permits for only six of the twenty-one LNG facilities that had requested them and declared that the department could “speed up its review of export applications.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, who recently called climate change a “weapon of mass destruction” and directed America’s diplomats to “elevate the environment in everything we do,” will play a central role in the natural gas export and Keystone XL decisions. Kerry built a strong environmental reputation during his years as a senator, but he serves a president who apparently sees no contradiction between tackling climate change and his all-of-the-above energy strategy. Mizeur, the gubernatorial candidate, was a top aide to Kerry when he was a senator. Asked at the Baltimore rally if she expected Kerry to reject Keystone XL, she replied, “I know he cares deeply as an individual about climate change, but I don’t know enough about the politics inside the administration to guess what the final decision will be.”

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