by Virginia Daffron and Lee Elliott
When Duke Energy announced last year that it was canceling controversial plans for a hugely intrusive 45-mile transmission line to a new power plant in upstate South Carolina, local environmentalists hailed it as a victory. In response to massive public outcry, the utility instead proposed two natural gas-powered units to replace the coal-fired generators at Lake Julian, with a third generating unit to be built if peak power demand continues to grow in the region.
Proponents have long touted natural gas as more environmentally friendly than coal, though more recent evidence has challenged that assertion. And while environmental advocates such as MountainTrue and the Sierra Club applauded Duke’s decision to scrap the transmission line, they urged the utility to accelerate the transition to renewable resources rather than continuing to invest heavily in fossil fuels.
Nonetheless, state regulators approved Duke’s plans (minus the third generator), based in part on the utility’s pledge to make every effort to slow the growth of local power demand. Soon after, Buncombe County, the city of Asheville and Duke Energy finalized plans for an innovative 15-member task force to chart the region’s energy future.
But what wasn’t heard much during this feel-good narrative was a word that’s generated its own fair share of controversy in recent years: fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, which injects water and various chemicals into shale formations to extract oil and natural gas, has been linked to groundwater contamination, air and noise pollution, human health concerns and even earthquakes (see sidebar, “Fracking 101”). Unbeknownst to many locals, it appears that fracking is already the source of much of the natural gas consumed here — and large-scale projects are underway to bring in even more fracked gas.
Yet when Xpress began investigating, we found local energy and environmental leaders either unaware of the source of the gas that will power Duke’s new Lake Julian plant or unwilling to discuss it.
And Jim Warren of NC WARN, who’d called attention to the issue even before Xpress confirmed the source of the fuel, said other local environmental groups criticized him for calling Duke’s new Lake Julian facility a “fracked gas plant.” The way he sees it, “Everything that Duke Energy or any user does that increases the use of gas is increasing drilling and the use of shale gas. There is virtually no growth in the conventional gas supply.”