By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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Supreme Court Rules Atlantic Coast Pipeline Can Cross Appalachian Trail, but the Battle Might Not Be Over
The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 Monday that the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) can pass underneath the Appalachian Trail.
The ruling removes one barrier to the pipeline, which has been delayed six years, but it still requires eight other permits, and environmental groups vowed to keep fighting.
"With the ACP still lacking 8 permits, this decision is just plugging just one hole on a sinking ship," director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign Kelly Martin said in a statement. "Nothing in today's ruling changes the fact that the fracked gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a dirty, dangerous threat to our health, climate and communities, and nothing about the ruling changes our intention to fight it."
Supreme Court decision today is dissapointing, but proposed fracked gas pipeline still lacks eight needed permits.… https://t.co/9ZsZ6IPguI— Kelly Sheehan Martin (@Kelly Sheehan Martin)1592248189.0
At stake in Monday's decision is the part of its route that would cross the Appalachian Trail in Central Virginia where the trail overlaps with the George Washington National Forest.
The Forest Service granted the pipeline a permit for the crossing in 2018, but a coalition of environmental groups led by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sued, arguing that the trail crossing was under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and tossed the Forest Service permit in December of that year.
But the companies appealed and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor Monday, arguing that the Forest Service controlled the land and had just granted the National Park Service a right of way to maintain the trail.
"If a rancher granted a neighbor an easement across his land for a horse trail, no one would think that the rancher had conveyed ownership over that land," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, NPR reported.
Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan disagreed.
"In her noteworthy dissent, Justice Sotomayor clearly gets what should be obvious: that the Appalachian Trail is land in the National Park system," Natural Resources Defense Council Climate & Clean Energy Program attorney Gillian Gianettti said in a statement. "And under federal law, a pipeline plainly cannot cross land in the National Park system."
Here’s why we’re fighting the #AtlanticCoastPipeline every step of the way: https://t.co/AculcWu8FP— NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC 🌎🏡)1592257093.0
Dominion celebrated the court's decision.
"Today's decision is an affirmation for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and communities across our region that are depending on it for jobs, economic growth and clean energy," the company said in a statement reported by Reuters. "We look forward to resolving the remaining project permits."
However, SELC said the remaining permits could be a major hurdle to the project. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the Forest Service permit on three other grounds not covered by the Supreme Court decision, NPR reported. The project also lacks permits relating to its impacts on endangered species, air and water, SELC pointed out.
The organization also pointed out that the decision comes as both Virginia and North Carolina are moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. Virginia passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act in April, which requires utilities to shut down all gas plants by 2045. And North Carolina's Clean Energy Plan requires the state to reduce emissions to 70 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A pending case before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will determine if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was correct in determining the ACP necessary when it granted it a permit in 2017.
"This is not a viable project," SELC program director DJ Gerken said. "It is still missing many required authorizations, including the Forest Service permit at issue in today's case, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will soon consider the mounting evidence that we never needed this pipeline to supply power. It's time for these developers to move on and reinvest the billions of dollars planned for this boondoggle into the renewable energy that Virginia and North Carolina customers want and deserve."
"This is not a viable project," with 8 permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline still in question, despite today's S… https://t.co/5e32mv1tid— SELC (Environmental Law) (@SELC (Environmental Law))1592248927.0
The Supreme Court decision could greenlight another contested Appalachian pipeline however, Reuters pointed out. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would run 300 miles from West Virginia to Southern Virginia, also crosses the Appalachian Trail in the Jefferson National Forest. It is almost finished, but construction at the trail crossing was halted to await the outcome of the ACP case.
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Changing your stove from gas to clean electric power is not only better for the environment, but much better for your health. nikamata / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Changing your stove from gas to clean electric power is not only better for the environment, but much better for your health, according to a new study that found gas stoves add pollution that makes indoor air up to two to five times dirtier than outdoor air.
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A three-dimensional portrait of methane concentrations around the world is helping researchers to understand the complex gas, which constitutes the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) warming after carbon dioxide.
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Trump Administration Reversed Existing Methane Regulations<p>Methane emissions have become <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2019/08/14/fracking-shale-gas-drilling-methane-spike-howarth" target="_blank">a much bigger issue</a> in the last decade since the <span style="background-color: initial;">U.S.</span> boom in shale <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/oil-and-gas">oil and gas</a> produced by <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/fracking" rel="noopener noreferrer">fracking</a>. Despite <a href="https://money.cnn.com/2016/07/21/investing/trump-energy-plan-obama-oil-boom/index.html" target="_blank">overseeing a huge rise in oil and gas production</a>, the Obama administration acknowledged the methane problem and <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/05/12/administration-takes-historic-action-reduce-methane-emission-oil-and-gas-sector" target="_blank">proposed and adopted new methane emissions regulations</a>, which the <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2019/09/10/key-facts-trump-epa-plan-obama-methane-leaks-rule" target="_blank">Trump administration has since repealed</a>.</p><p>The Trump administration has staffed regulatory agencies with former industry executives and lobbyists who have been quite successful at rolling back environmental, health, and safety rules.</p><p>Last August former coal lobbyist and current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/andrew-wheeler" target="_blank">Andrew Wheeler</a> <a href="https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-proposes-updates-air-regulations-oil-and-gas-remove-redundant-requirements-and-1" target="_blank">explained the reasoning</a> for removing the Obama methane rules.</p><p>"EPA's proposal delivers on President Trump's executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry," Wheeler said. "The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use."</p><p>The problem with this free-market assumption is that Wheeler is wrong about the industry's financial incentive to limit methane emissions.</p>
Even the Remaining Regulations Are Controlled by Industry<p>While the Trump administration has rolled back many regulations for the oil and gas industry, the regulatory system in the U.S. was already designed to protect industry profits — not the public or environment. When the federal government creates regulations, the process can be heavily influenced by industry lobbyists, and if they don't agree with the regulations, there are many ways they can get them revised to favor their companies.</p><p>While Exxon <a href="https://www.axios.com/exxon-epa-regulate-methane-emissions-oil-gas--0befdde6-e0fe-49db-a200-38299853b43d.html" target="_blank">did publicly say </a>in 2018 that it didn't support repealing the existing methane regulations, the company also wrote to the <span style="background-color: initial;">EPA</span> voicing support for certain aspects of the <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/american-petroleum-institute" target="_blank">American Petroleum Institute's</a> (<span style="background-color: initial;">API</span>) comments on the issue, and the <span style="background-color: initial;">API</span> <a href="https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/08/oil-gas-lobby-split-by-trump-rollback-of-methane-rules/" target="_blank">approved removing the regulations.</a> In that letter Exxon used the same language it is now using with its propsed regulations, saying any rules need to be "cost-effective" and "reasonable." But if the regulations are cost-effective, will they actually be effective in reducing methane emissions in a meaningful way?</p>
Excerpt from Exxon letter to EPA about methane regulations. ExxonMobil<p><a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-safety-rules-on-oil-drilling-were-changed-some-staff-objected-those-notes-were-cut-11582731559" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a> recently highlighted the influence that the oil and gas industry and its major U.S. trade group the American Petroleum Institute can have over regulations. After the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government put into place new safeguards known as the "well control rule" in order to prevent another disaster during deepwater offshore drilling.</p><p>In 2019, the Trump administration revised the rule, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/05/03/720008093/trump-administration-moves-to-roll-back-offshore-drilling-safety-regulations" target="_blank">weakening it</a>, even though, as the Journal reported, federal regulatory staff did not agree "that an industry-crafted protocol for managing well pressure was sufficient in all situations, the records show." The staff was ignored. (And the move is <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/suit-filed-over-well-control-rule-repeal" target="_blank">undergoing a legal challenge</a>.)</p><p>Industry crafted protocol. Just the thing Exxon is now proposing.</p><p>This type of industry control over the regulatory process was also brought to light after two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed and killed 346 people. Boeing had fought to make sure that pilots weren't required to undergo expensive and lengthy training to navigate the new plane.</p><p><a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-boeing-737max/designed-by-clowns-boeing-employees-ridicule-737-max-regulators-in-internal-messages-idUSKBN1Z902N" target="_blank">Reuters reported </a>on internal communications at Boeing which revealed the airplane maker simply would not let simulator training be required by regulators:</p><p>"I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to MAX," Boeing's 737 chief technical pilot said in a March 2017 email.</p><p>"Boeing will not allow that to happen. We'll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement."</p><p>Boeing got its way. And 346 people died.</p>