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Public Outcry Intensifies to Stop Cove Point LNG Export Facility

Energy
Public Outcry Intensifies to Stop Cove Point LNG Export Facility

Monday marked the end of a contested 30-day public comment period on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) draft Environmental Assessment for the controversial $3.8 billion plan, proposed by Virginia-based Dominion Resources, to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Cove Point, MD. Dominion’s plan is to convert an existing import facility into an export facility and to pipe fracked gas from the Marcellus shale to southern Maryland, liquefy it and export it to be burned in Japan and India.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network Facebook page

FERC’s environmental assessment has been widely criticized for failing to address the project’s role in speeding fracking across Appalachia, worsening the climate crisis and threatening the safety of nearby residents in Calvert County with potential explosion and fire catastrophes. The facility, located next to a residential community, is only three miles from a nuclear power plant and 50 miles from Washington, D.C.

More than 150,000 comments flooded FERC, arguing that it is clear that without analyzing the foreseeable cumulative impacts this project would have on the environment throughout the 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, FERC’s determination of a “Finding of No Significant Impact” is arbitrary and capricious and violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) says that FERC should weigh gas production stimulus effect of the Cove Point export facility. In its comments filed on Monday, the EPA states “Both FERC and DOE [U.S. Department of Energy] have recognized that an increase in natural gas exports will result in increased production.” But somehow FERC concludes, "it is not feasible to more specifically evaluate localized environmental impacts."

Upstream Impacts

It is clear that the Cove Point export facility will drive expansion of fracking for natural gas across the entire Chesapeake region in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and in Maryland, where no drilling has yet occurred. The export valve will open and the race to frack will explode. In many states, fracking has resulted in drinking water contamination, air pollution, fish kills, illness, forest fragmentation and even earthquakes. In addition, each fracked well requires millions of gallons of water, often depleting local waterways, and produces millions of gallons of toxic and radioactive wastewater. 

This project will mean more landscapes and communities will be transformed with fracking wells, pipelines, compressor stations and new roads carrying thousands of trucks, turning once rural and pristine areas—including farms, public parks and forests—into industrial sacrifice zones so energy companies can ship our natural gas elsewhere. Further, the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, would be highway for thousand-foot long tankers to transport the liquefied gas, exposing the treasured Bay to invasive species and worsening the “dead zone” in the Bay through dumping of polluted ballast water.

FERC has shown it rubber stamps projects and is beholden to the gas industry by already approving a new compressor station in rural Myersville, MD, despite intense community opposition. This 16,000-horsepower compressor station that Dominion wants to construct, will be located just a mile from an elementary school. Next up would be an expanded compressor station in northern Virginia.

A major Pennsylvania fracking company—Cabot Oil & Gas—has already committed to pipe gas to Cove Point for export. Dominion’s plan includes connecting to the interstate natural gas transmission systems of Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Company, Columbia Gas Transmission and DTI, which would pipe gas to Cove Point from a wide range of regions in the U.S. Pipelines, which are also under FERC’s jurisdiction, are being proposed throughout the Susquehanna River basin, and across the Gunpowder River watershed—which includes the drinking water source for the city of Baltimore—all to pipe natural gas to Cove Point. These pipelines, which inevitably leak and rupture causing dangerous explosions and fires, would snake through our waterways, drinking water sources, backyards and farms. Yet, the environmental assesment fails to analyze impacts of natural gas development, despite information about where Dominion's customers will source the gas and plans for new pipelines designed to shuttle gas to Cove Point.

The fact that FERC did not relate the facility at Cove Point to the “fracking process” and analyze the consequences is a fundamental flaw, making the analysis meaningless. The more than 150,000 comments that were sent to FERC on Monday say loud and clear that they don’t buy FERC’s meaningless assessment.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network Facebook page

What You Can Do 

The fight against this fracked gas export facility has been long, but it’s not over. This week, several organizations and individuals are participating in a blogathon to reach out across the Chesapeake Bay region and the nation to decry the unchecked march to export our natural gas at the expense of our rivers, streams, bays, forests, farms and communities.

Next week, hundreds of people will join a week-long picket line at FERC to protest the rubber stamping of this project. On July 13, thousands of people will gather in Washington, D.C. to rally and march against fracked gas exports at Cove Point and beyond.

 

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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