Here's How This Governor Can Take Real Climate Action
By Kelly Trout
Now that Donald Trump has official announced that he plans to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and further entrench the power of the fossil fuel industry within our federal government, state and local action on climate becomes ever more crucial.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently said as much in announcing executive action to draw up a state cap-and-trade system to limit carbon pollution from power plants.
"Obviously with the pronouncements now coming out of the Trump administration, we cannot rely on them to do it, so we will be taking it into our own hands on the state level," McAuliffe declared.
But if McAuliffe (or Virginia's next governor) is truly serious about standing up to Trump on climate, and protecting Virginia's vulnerable coastline from catastrophic flooding, he would also stop two massive fracked-gas pipelines proposed across the state. And, contrary to McAuliffe's public statements, Virginia's governor can stop these pipelines.
These projects—the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline led by Dominion Energy, and the 301-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline led by gas company EQT—would be disasters for the climate and communities along their path. They would both carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia, crossing the steep fragile terrain of the Allegheny highlands and hundreds of waterways, and threatening pristine forests, drinking water supplies, and farms. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would stretch further into North Carolina. Because of the risks, the projects are being fiercely opposed by affected landowners and concerned residents across all three states.
If built, the pipelines would blow a gaping, methane-filled hole into any Virginia state plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. In fact, they would significantly increase climate pollution. Oil Change International found that these pipelines would together cause as much greenhouse gas pollution as 45 coal-fired power plants—some 158 million metric tons a year. (See the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline greenhouse gas emissions briefings.) That's because each new pipeline would trigger new gas production through fracking, and reliance on fracked gas for electricity is dirtier than coal when you add up the leakage of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, along the gas supply chain.
In Virginia, picking up Trump's slack on climate change must include proactively stopping the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, and the increased gas reliance they would enable. Dominion Energy's Virginia subsidiary, the largest utility in the state, plans to continue investing heavily in gas-fired power plants. It's doing so at the expense of seriously accelerating clean energy investments, despite the fact that Virginia lags far behind neighboring North Carolina and Maryland in tapping its solar and wind resources, and ranks in the bottom-third of all states on energy efficiency.
Addressing carbon emissions only at the point of gas combustion—as the gas industry would like policymakers to do and as McAuliffe has thus far obliged—is like trying to save a burning house by spraying water on one side and jet fuel on the other. The flames will keep growing.
So how can Virginia's governor stop these pipelines?
The answer rests with water.
For his part, McAuliffe has frequently claimed the pipelines are a "federal" issue. That belies the full picture. While the federal Natural Gas Act concentrates permitting authority over interstate gas pipelines with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it specifically preserves state authority to approve or deny certain permits under the federal Clean Water Act. The governor's administration has direct authority to approve or deny a Water Quality Certificate for both pipelines under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.
As David Sligh of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition put it, FERC's role "in no way lessens the state's ability to stop these destructive projects if they would damage our water quality. Congress explicitly gave states a veto power over federal projects that could degrade their waters."
This is far from a theoretical argument. In New York State, the Cuomo administration has used state authority over 401 permits to block construction of two gas pipelines over the past year: the Constitution Pipeline and the Northern Access Pipeline.
Meanwhile, recent headlines out of Ohio illustrate the extensive damage gas pipelines can inflict on water resources during construction alone. FERC recently ordered Energy Transfer Partners to halt new horizontal directional drilling activities for construction of the Rover Pipeline after the company spilled two to five million gallons of drilling waste into fragile wetlands. The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley projects would both involve this type of risky drilling, they would both cross hundreds of waterways and wetlands, and their construction would involve laying 42-inch, high-pressure pipe through fragile karst terrain.
Yet, the McAuliffe administration has waffled in its willingness to fully exercise its permit authority under the Clean Water Act. In early April, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a statement saying it would conduct project-specific 401 permit reviews for each pipeline, including a review of individual stream and wetlands crossings.
However, just seven weeks later, the agency suddenly backtracked, calling that previous statement a "miscommunication." Instead, DEQ said it will defer to a blanket "Nationwide Permit 12" issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, which would approve hundreds of stream crossings at once without any site-specific review. DEQ claims it will still examine "other" issues beyond the waterway crossings. Water advocates say this would amount to an evasion of the state's legal duties.
The bottom line is this: To lead on climate, and protect the state's precious water resources, Virginia's governor—whether it's Terry McAuliffe or his successor—can and must stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.
Doing so will take some political guts. Dominion, the company behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, also happens to be the biggest corporate donor to state political candidates in Virginia.
But gutsy decisions from state and local leaders are needed now more than ever, given Trump's absolute abdication of moral and economic leadership at the federal level. Virginia has an opportunity to become a true climate leader in the Trump era—but that must include rejecting multi-billion-dollar investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure. Gas pipelines are a bridge to climate destruction forestalling our transition to solar, wind, and energy efficiency solutions, which provide the only path to a stable climate.
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By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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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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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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