According to the Association of Oil Pipelines, pipelines are energy “lifelines." They create jobs, keep costs down, and are the safest way to transport oil and gas. It’s easy to see they currently fuel the American way of life. But there’s disagreement on whether building more pipelines is in our collective best interest.
This is 89-1 WEMU and I’m David Fair. Welcome to the November edition of “The Green Room." In previous installments of this multi-part series, we explored the web of pipelines under our feet—their safety and potential impacts to our water quality. Last month, we found that decisions on pipelines are made by appointees of the state governor, and the U.S. president. They base pipeline decisions on what is in the best interests of “the public good.” In our final installment, Barbara Lucas explores the question; what is the public good?
Footsteps on gravel.
Matt Wagner: It’s the largest solar array in Michigan so far.
Barbara Lucas (BL): Renewables expert Matt Wagner is leading a tour of DTE’s solar installation in Lapeer, Michigan.
Wagner: …enough energy to power about 11,000 homes. We’re very proud of it.
BL: Considering Solar’s virtues, why do we continue to build pipelines? Ed Rivet, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, is a speaker on the tour. He says “The Almighty Dollar” rules, and currently, fossil fuels win out. In our quest to minimize costs for customers, he feels we aren’t counting the dollars correctly.
Ed Rivet: If you haven't internalized the externality of the cost of the pollution environmentally and health-wise, then you haven't really captured the whole cost of that fossil fuel. So as a policy analyst by training, it’s like look, you've got to count all the numbers. If you want to give me a numbers argument, count all the numbers!
BL: Pipeline proposal requests are in the hands of the 5-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—or FERC. Of the approximately four hundred received since 1999, they’ve denied only two pipelines. Carl Weimer of the non-profit Pipeline Safety Trust says the calculation is simple.
Carl Weimer: If a company can come in and prove that they have customers, well, that's enough for FERC to approve a pipeline because that shows there's a need, if you have a customer willing to buy the stuff you're going to move through the pipeline.
BL: But that definition of the public good may change.
Weimer: Even FERC right now is kind of re-examining that position and rethinking whether they need to take a deeper look at need being more than just having a customer, especially as we start looking at climate change, and how does putting new pipelines into the ground lock us into a system that might be affecting the climate.
BL: When it comes to the Line 5 pipeline in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, opponents are quick to point out the climate change repercussions.
Kate Madigan: Over 700 miles of shoreline are vulnerable to oil spill. But even when it doesn't spill, every day there's carbon spilled into the atmosphere when this oil is being burned.
BL: That’s Kate Madigan, Director of the Michigan Climate Action Network.
Madigan: That's the greenhouse gas equivalent of 71 coal fired power plants, or about 62 million cars.
BL: I’m watching an ad from the National Petroleum Institute, which says U.S. CO2 emissions are down 25% thanks to natural gas. But what about methane leakage, which is common during natural gas production and pipeline transport? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over a two-decade time span, methane has 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
J.C. Kibbey: We have found that if that leakage is at 3% or more, from the perspective of climate change, that it is essentially just as bad as coal or worse.
BL: That’s J.C. Kibbey of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Kibbey: So switching directly from coal to natural gas is really not going to get us where we need to go in terms of the urgent issue of climate change.
BL: Scientists say we’ve been underestimating the amount of methane leakage. Door knock, greetings. Dr. Eric Kort of the University of Michigan is a climate and space science engineer. His team is using instruments on the ground, in aircraft, and on satellites to pinpoint the location of previously undetected methane leaks.
Eric Kort: So there really is a tremendous opportunity if it's easier to identify where we're losing gases. It's easier to then address that.
BL: So now we can find them, why aren’t they all being fixed?
Kort: …issue at play is, it might cost significant money upfront to measure it, to identify, and to repair it. And so what's your time horizon for investment? Is it worth investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a repair that will only pay off over many years? These are economic decisions from a business.
BL: Currently, the Trump administration is seeking to relax Obama-era rules that require oil and gas companies to look for and repair methane leaks. They say doing so will save almost half a billion dollars from 2019 to 2025, and support the domestic energy sector. Kate Madigan is concerned we’re weighing short-term economic gain more than long-term public good.
Madigan: The writing is on the wall that we're going to be moving off of fossil fuels. So I think the fossil fuel industry, the pipeline companies, want to build as many pipelines as they can right now, so that they can extract as much as possible while they can.
BL: Madigan feels that the financial impacts to the broader society should be considered when making decisions about pipelines.
Madigan: We are paying a price for carbon emissions. People are paying that in, you know, by the impacts from climate change that we're now seeing. Insurance companies and cities and states and governments are paying for this as well. We're paying for it with our tax money.
BL: She’s referring to weather impacts, but health impacts from emissions cost money as well. Guy Williams is president of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
Guy Williams: What about the six billion dollar drag on our economy that we're getting from the sick people? That's something that's not really getting factored into the pricing of the sources of air pollution.
BL: So fossil fuels can benefit the public good economically, if we don’t include their full costs. Another public benefit is offered by DTE’s Matt Wagner: He says our current economy relies on “baseload”—the ready availability of fossil fuels that can be fired up at a moment’s notice.
Matt Wagner: Renewables is—by virtue of the fact that it's powered by wind and solar—is intermittent at times. You know you can't always guarantee that it's there, and so baseload is still needed.
BL: Ensuring a reliable source of energy: that’s a “public service” the Michigan Public Service Commission tries to provide. It factored into their approval of DTE’s proposal for a new, almost-billion dollar gas plant in St. Clair County. Clearly, being able to store wind and solar energy for later use would be a game-changer. Guy Williams says pricing carbon to reflect it’s true costs would catalyze that change.
Williams: It would cause innovation to fix that issue, would drive innovation.
BL: Many countries, including Canada, have priced carbon in pursuit of their public good. Can Americans be convinced that such change would be in our best interest as well? Here’s Dr. Elizabeth Anderson, chair of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.
Elizabeth Anderson: We've been through an energy transition before, and it's time for a new one.
BL: For instance, the centuries-long pursuit of whale oil for lighting.
Anderson: No reason to hunt down sperm whales today, and no reason to continue reliance on fossil fuels, either.
BL: She says the lack of accounting for the full costs allows profit to be made off of highly destructive activities.
Anderson: But it is possible to change the rules of the game to channel people's profit motives to things that are a net benefit to human beings and future generations.
BL: She says the American way of life can still thrive.
Anderson: Business is an essential tool, resource, for building an environmentally better future. There's no inherent conflict between a sustainable future and a future in which profit-making businesses play a very prominent role.
BL: Indeed, Exxon Mobil recently donated $1 million to “Americans for Carbon Dividends.” That group promotes taxing coal, gas, and oil at the point of extraction. This allows less carbon-intensive products to shine, price-wise. Other companies in support include BP, General Motors, Shell, and Total. There’s still profit to be made with a carbon tax, but on cleaner energies. And if natural gas byproducts like methane are taxed too, as some proposals advocate, then renewables look all the better. In these scenarios, more pipelines might not be in our collective best interest.
In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
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