National fight over shaky fracking future, methane-driven climate change, corporate influence comes to North Carolina as constitutional challenge against legislature looms
Statement by Dr. Harvard Ayers and Jim Warren:
Durham, NC – Today NC WARN and The Climate Times filed a legal motion and affidavits by three prominent technical experts urging state regulators to deny Duke Energy’s application to build a huge natural gas power plant in Asheville because it is not needed, would be high-risk economically, and would accelerate the global climate crisis at the worst possible time.
Those problems are amplified by an unconstitutional review process – created by Duke Energy’s legislative allies and bent in its favor repeatedly by the NC Utilities Commission so far. The nationally unique 45-day review process for the $1.1 billion project is speeding forward without an evidentiary hearing, without Duke answering to experts or cross-examination, and with the Commission allowing the utility to hide crucial information from parties in the case, the news media and the public.
The three experts are helping us because Duke Energy is the largest US utility polluter and it is pursuing a giant expansion of fracking gas plants, pipelines and mergers. Apparently the Commission doesn’t intend to consider their concerns; the new approval process is being crafted along the way.
Veteran energy industry engineer Bill Powers* concludes that Duke’s “load growth forecast is unsupported and conflicts with the static or declining actual peak load trend in the Western Carolinas over the last eight years. Use of a realistic load forecast eliminates the stated need for the [new plants]. Aside from the lack of need for the project, there are alternatives of comparable or less cost to Duke’s proposed 750 MW of natural gas power plant[s].”
Despite repeated requests, Duke failed to substantiate its central argument for new plants – that peak power usage in Asheville will grow by 17 percent over ten years. Under pressure, the utility finally submitted an unsigned, undated, unverified spreadsheet by a Duke contractor, which lacks critical information but which uses Duke’s numbers to (not surprisingly) match the 17 percent growth claim.
All parties agree that the two, little-used coal burning units at Asheville must be closed. But despite several requests, Duke Energy has refused to explain why it needs to build new plants that would create total generation capacity six times the amount now being generated in Asheville – instead of using the glut of electricity supply available within Duke’s territory and among neighboring utilities.
Nor has Duke explained why it didn’t consider equipment upgrades that could double the carrying capacity of transmission lines into and out of the area – if, in fact, additional capacity is even needed.
DISASTROUS FOR CLIMATE CHANGE
Dr. Robert Howarth* of Cornell University is a leading expert on the role of methane leakage as a driver of global warming. He warns that large amounts of methane leaking throughout the natural gas industry are now the top greenhouse gas problem in the US. And that Duke’s proposed gas plants could cause a doubling of greenhouse emissions compared to the site’s coal units. From his affidavit:
“When emissions of methane and CO2 are compared over appropriate time scales, natural gas is an even worse fuel choice than is coal from the standpoint of global warming. … It is far more important to reduce methane emissions than carbon dioxide emissions over the coming decade or two, if we are to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming within the next 15 to 35 years …
“This means that building new plants to produce electricity from natural gas is a disastrous strategy.”
David Hughes* is a 32-year veteran of the Geological Survey of Canada and a leading expert on shale gas reserves and production. He has exposed vast and persistent exaggeration of gas reserves by the oil and gas industry and US regulators for several years, along with the very rapid depletion of fracked-gas wells – up to 85 percent within three years – and a fast-declining fracking industry.
“If natural gas production declines, as is currently the case, and drilling rates cannot be maintained due to poor economics, fuel prices could skyrocket, putting ratepayers at risk of shortages and price spikes,” Hughes wrote in his affidavit in the Duke Energy case.
Amazingly, Duke Energy refuses to reveal its price projections for natural gas (or even low, medium and high estimates) over the plant’s 30 year life. As Hughes says, “This information should be readily available, as it will significantly affect the plant’s overall economics.”
Fracking gas production has never paid for itself, but now the industry is in free-fall. Duke Energy execs must somehow think they’re smarter than all those producers going belly-up.
In today’s motion, attorney John Runkle wrote that the Commission must judge whether the 45-day review period in Sen. Tom Apodaca’s bill allows for “fair regulation” of Duke Energy and whether it is “in the interest of the public.” If not, the Commission’s approval of the Asheville plant “allows an unconstitutional monopoly to operate.”
Last week, Columbia Energy intervened in the legal case, frustrated that Duke Energy has not responded to its offer to supply 523 MW from its existing natural gas plant at a cheaper rate. Duke is required to purchase this power under federal law. We suspect Duke has delayed answering Columbia until it gains approval to build even more plants in Asheville.
The Asheville project is not about “replacing coal.” It’s about Duke maximizing electricity sales across the region. It epitomizes Duke Energy executives’ three-pronged business model: build plants, raise rates, control state government to keep getting away with it … no matter the costs to society.
This case is a statewide fight with national ramifications – moving toward a public meeting at the NC Utilities Commission on February 22.
*MORE ON OUR EXPERTS:
Robert W. Howarth has been an Earth systems scientist, ecologist and tenured faculty member at Cornell University for 30 years. His Ph.D. was earned jointly from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has served on and/or chaired twelve committees and panels of the US National Academy of Sciences, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Council for Science. Dr. Howarth is an expert on the role of methane emissions as a driver of global warming.
William E. Powers, P.E. is a consulting energy and environmental engineer with over 30 years of experience in the fields of power plant operations and environmental engineering. He earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Duke University and an M.P.H. in environmental science from UNC-Chapel Hill.
David Hughes is a geoscientist who has studied energy resources for nearly four decades, including 32 years with the Canadian Geological Survey as a scientist and research manager. He coordinated a comprehensive assessment of Canada’s unconventional (shale) natural gas potential as Team Leader for Unconventional Gas on the Canadian Gas Potential Committee. He has analyzed data from more than 88% of the 65,000 fracked oil and gas wells.