October 18, 2013

The comparison to a Road Runner cartoon would be comical if it weren’t so apt. Wile E. Coyote paints an elaborate faux exit ramp off a main road, with arrows and lighted signs saying, “Go this way!” It heads, of course, to a sheer cliff.

Virginia-based Dominion Resources is asking Maryland to do just that: run off a cliff. In rural Calvert County, along the placid Chesapeake Bay, the company is proposing a $3.8 billion facility to liquefy more than 750 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and ship it to India and Japan. That gas would come from controversial “fracking” wells drilled across several states, potentially including Maryland.

A careful review of Dominion’s application to the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) shows how this one facility would turn Maryland — a state with relatively progressive global-warming policies — into a regional dumping ground for carbon pollution.

The permitting process for the plant is complex and involves state and federal regulators. But the numbers are staggering, and they serve as a caution to the rest of the nation, where 25 facilities to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been proposed. According to Dominion’s numbers, its Cove Point LNG facility would emit more global-warming pollution annually — 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide — than do most of the state’s dirtiest coal-burning power plants. Why? Because chilling natural gas to 270 degrees below zero — the temperature at which it becomes liquid and can be pumped onto tankers — is a process that requires a lot of energy.

Dominion wants to build a utility-scale power plant on site — 130 megawatts — just to power part of the liquefaction process. The company would also burn gas to run various pumps, chillers and compressor equipment. None of this, mind you, would add a single kilowatt-hour of electricity to the Maryland grid. We would get no new power whatsoever.

What we do get is a new pulse of greenhouse gas pollution so large it would take more than 2.5 million acres of new forest land to offset it. And, oh yeah, according to the Energy Department, upward pressure will be applied to domestic energy prices. Such increases hit low-income consumers hardest.

But that’s just the start. In its PSC application, Dominion does not include the full pollution consequences of exporting this fuel from fracking wells. Those wells are spreading across much of Appalachia — though not yet in Maryland — thanks to new drilling techniques that employ pumped water, toxic chemicals and underground explosives. Exporting that gas will not only raise its price, it will also stimulate the drilling of still more wells. As part of the extraction process, each of these wells will inevitably emit some of the powerful heat-trapping gas methane (whose greenhouse effect is 25 times larger than carbon dioxide’s). Then the gas has to be piped all the way to Calvert County (with more inevitable methane pollution along the way). Then liquefied (the CO2 pollution). And then put on tankers (more CO2).

All this, remember, before the gas is ever burned to make power overseas, which, as with any fossil fuel, results in large CO2 emissions. Hence the cliff.

But Dominion insists there’s no pollution ledge here. No economic ledge, either. It paints an elaborate detour sign with signs saying: “New Jobs This Way!” And “Tax Revenue for Politicians Here!” And “Trust us: Gas is the Good Fossil Fuel.” These could be strong lures for federal and state policymakers, tempting them to steer the state off its present course of reducing carbon emissions 25 percent statewide by 2020. So let’s take a look.

Jobs? Dominion says the Cove Point facility would create a paltry 130 permanent jobs. And many of those could be highly specialized workers from overseas. Taxes? True, Calvert County and the state would get a few million dollars annually in new revenue. But is this worth turning the state into a regional emissions sewer? And good fossil fuel? As illustrated above, this is the biggest myth of all. Pollution from drilling, leakage from piping, emissions from massive export tankers: By any reasonable analysis — conducted using publicly available data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the International Energy Agency and others — it’s clear that the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of fracked and exported natural gas are nearly as bad as — and potentially worse than — the life-cycle emissions of coal.

Tragically, if state and federal officials approve the Cove Point project, all of these negative impacts would occur. Accounting for all impacts, this one facility would become the biggest cause of global-warming pollution in Maryland. Or, as one Cornell University scientist has said, fracked gas is not a “bridge fuel” to a cleaner future. It’s “a gangplank” to a climate calamity.

If, on the other hand, the facility is not constructed, then much of this gas may very well stay in the ground and the emissions avoided. Non-polluting energy like wind and solar would then gain better footing. We stay on course. No detour.

Dominion could simply propose another export facility in another coastal state, of course. But that state’s residents might object to becoming an international sacrifice zone, too. And so might others, battling other export terminals nationwide, be emboldened and inspired by Maryland’s stance.

And then, suddenly, we all avoid the cliff.

The writer is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.