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Pipeline's Cancellation Shows Importance of Renewables in Pennsylvania

In a major win for the environment, Dominion Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp. announced Sunday that they will not be moving forward with their Atlantic Coast fracked gas pipeline. The companies said increased costs and delays as well as “legal uncertainty” made the project untenable. The pipeline’s demise ends the threat it posed to the water, air, and soil of the communities through which it would have passed.

The pipeline was controversial from its inception in 2014. Environmentalists and local landowners opposed the 600-mile project, which would have crossed the Appalachian Trail and carried fracked gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. In its path was the predominantly African-American community of Union Hill, Virginia.

The Sierra Club, the Virginia State Conference of NAACP Branches, and the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, among others, joined a suit brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Friends of Buckingham to stop the pipeline’s construction.

In January, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously found that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality had failed to adequately consider the pipeline’s potential effects on Union Hill citizens. The 4th Circuit also agreed that Virginia had failed to consider zero-emission turbines as an alternative to the pipeline developers’ use of gas-fired turbines in a compressor station.

For developers Duke and Dominion, that ruling was only the latest in a string of legal headaches: the pipeline’s Endangered Species Act permit, right of way across the Blue Ridge Parkway, and water permit verifications had all already been invalidated by the 4th Circuit in 2018.

But last month, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, sided with the energy companies and overturned another 4th Circuit decision that prevented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from granting the pipeline a special use permit for a segment of pipeline that crossed the Appalachian National Scenic Trail on federal land.

Fortunately for the environment and the affected communities, the pipeline developers’ Supreme Court victory wasn’t enough to justify moving forward on the project. The pipeline still lacked many other permits, and evidence suggested that the project would only add unnecessary fossil fuel capacity to the grid. Duke and Dominion said in a statement that ongoing “litigation risk,” including recent adverse rulings in other districts, made the project “no longer a prudent use of shareholder capital.”

Like Virginia, Pennsylvania has witnessed rapid growth in its gas industry over the past decade because of fracking. The industry has long touted itself as both a jobs creator and an environmentally friendly alternative to coal-fired energy generation.

While it’s true that fracked gas has lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal, extraction through fracking also results in the leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas with a heat-trapping potential 84 times higher than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. And recent research has concluded that methane emissions from oil and gas production have been underestimated by as much as 40 percent. That means that fracked gas is little better than coal when it comes to slowing climate change and in fact, it may be worse.

In addition, fracking can result in the release of toxic and hazardous air pollutants regulated by the EPA due to their ability to cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems, and other health complications.

Finally, fracking can also threaten local water resources, especially in areas where water is already scarce. The toxic chemicals used in fracking fluid are stored in open pits that have been linked to animal deaths and negative health consequences in humans. And fracking liquid, flammable gas, or methane itself often contaminates local water sources.

What’s more, in Pennsylvania, the Attorney General has been coming down hard not only on the industry but also the state Department of Environmental Protection for failing to operate safely (here and here) and for failing to protect our communities and our environment from the harmful impacts of fracking.

The other leg upon which the fracking industry standsits role as a job creatoris equally shaky. Food & Water Watch recently found that the American Petroleum Institute, a leading oil and fracking trade group, “promotes extremely misleading claims about the number of Americans working in the fracking industry” in “a clear attempt to defend the economically struggling industry that is linked to air, water, and climate pollution.” API has claimed, for instance, that half a million jobs in Pennsylvania would be at risk if fracking were banned in the state. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, on the other hand, counts only 26,000 fracking jobs in Pennsylvania. 

The industry has contracted significantly in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the pandemic, North American fracking firms were in a precarious position: their net debt exploded from $50 billion in 2005 to $200 billion in 2015. After the COVID-19 outbreak began, Chevron suggested it might sell its Appalachian shale assets, the bulk of which are in Pennsylvania. And Chesapeake Energyonce the second-largest fracked gas producer in the U.S. and a pioneer in the fracking boomfiled for bankruptcy last month.

The better option for Pennsylvania is to invest in clean, renewable energy. Unlike fracked gas and other fossil fuels, solar and wind power are not subject to the same sorts of supply and production issues that lead to volatile market fluctuations. As a result, renewable energy prices can remain stable over time. This is good news for consumers, who can then depend upon predictable electricity costs.

In addition, jobs in solar and wind are growing, while jobs in the fossil fuel industry are not. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over the next decade, the two fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. are solar photovoltaic installer and wind turbine service technician. As far back as 2016, the solar power industry alone employed twice as many people as the coal, oil, and gas industries combined did.

And finally, the pure economics of renewables make them the obvious choice for developing new generating capacity. Solar and wind energy generation are already competitive with fracked gas in many parts of the country. This math is the primary reason why the use of renewables has grown despite the Trump administration’s tariffs on solar cells and panels, and its withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Pennsylvania needs more clean energy jobsjobs that support Pennsylvania’s communities and safeguard its wildlife and natural resources. What’s more, the only major impediment to a total transition toward renewables has been largely attenuated by better and more affordable utility-scale storage options. 

The COVID-19 epidemic offers us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the way we use and generate energy. Let’s make the most of it.

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