Can a pro-climate politician support natural gas?

By Emily Holden | 07/22/2016 08:06 AM EDT

Several Virginia environmental groups will march on Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s home tomorrow to protest his support of natural gas pipelines and offshore oil drilling.

Several Virginia environmental groups will march on Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s home tomorrow to protest his support of natural gas pipelines and offshore oil drilling.

They say they want to express their "deep dissatisfaction" with his record on climate change, but not all their peers are as displeased with McAuliffe’s work.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). | Photo courtesy of the commonwealth of Virginia.

Multiple national environmental groups with workers in the state say they are still largely supportive of him, even though they don’t love his defense of oil and gas. McAuliffe’s overall push away from coal and toward renewable energy keeps him in their good graces, they argue.


"I think his record is pretty clear as far as using executive action to address climate change and expand clean energy wherever he can … especially when you compare him to his predecessor," said Walton Shepherd, a staff attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council.

The rift in Virginia is spotlighting a growing debate around the country: Can politicians support natural gas and still be considered climate friendly? And as the United States shifts away from coal-fired power, what role should natural gas play versus renewables?

The groups protesting tomorrow say they don’t think it should play any role. They have like-minded supporters around the country, including groups that want presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to ban the hydraulic fracturing process that has allowed for a natural gas boom in the United States.

"The governor would like to say he’s the best governor on clean energy and climate change that Virginia’s ever had, but honestly, that’s a very low bar," said Mike Tidwell, the director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is marching tomorrow and has given McAuliffe’s environmental record a grade of D-plus. "There’s never been a coalition like this before. That’s how deep the dissatisfaction is with Terry McAuliffe and how widespread."

Hamstrung by the Legislature?

McAuliffe in 2013 ran a pro-climate campaign against former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who denied that human action is contributing to climate change. Many environmental groups contributed to McAuliffe’s campaign in that race, including the League of Conservation Voters and the NextGen Climate Action Committee.

The groups marching tomorrow say McAuliffe pulled a classic bait-and-switch move.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Appalachian Voices, Virginia Organizing and other groups will lead the march in Richmond tomorrow, joined by Jane Kleeb, an organizer behind protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. Celebrity climate activist Mark Ruffalo has encouraged people to participate, although he will be filming a movie in Australia.

The advocates marching have myriad problems with McAuliffe’s energy and environment policies. But they are largely decrying his support of two natural gas pipelines: the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina, and the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia. They also oppose his backing of offshore oil development and handling of coal ash dumping.

Virginia directly feels the effects of climate change, especially as coastal areas experience more frequent and severe flooding in the face of sea-level rise. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network did give McAuliffe one decent grade, a B-minus, on "fighting sea-level rise and flooding impacts here now."

But other groups, including NRDC and the state chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, paint a more complicated picture of McAuliffe’s climate work.

Shepherd said "the current General Assembly that the governor has to deal with is essentially dominated by climate deniers or polluter interests that have essentially tried to tie is hands at every turn … but he’s forged ahead." When lawmakers blocked the state’s Department of Environmental Quality from spending money to prepare for the Supreme Court-halted Clean Power Plan, McAuliffe moved ahead with an executive order to reduce emissions, he noted.

"That puts him ahead of the pack as far as climate change and clean energy goes," Shepherd said.

Greta Bagwell, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters’ deputy director, penned an op-ed in The Roanoke Times
in late May defending McAuliffe’s climate work, including vetoing the extension of Virginia’s coal mine tax credit, fending off legislative attempts to make it harder for the state to comply with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and advancing renewable power and energy efficiency.

"Let me be clear: There are aspects of McAuliffe’s energy platform that we do disagree with," Bagwell wrote, including his support of gas infrastructure projects by the state’s main power provider, Dominion Resources Inc. "But rather than fixate on points of disagreement, we have put our energy into working with the administration on the clean energy policies where we are on the same page," she continued. "The truth is there is only so much McAuliffe, or any other sitting governor, can accomplish without a willing Legislature."

Underscoring the debate on gas

The split over McAuliffe represents a broader debate about the future use of natural gas, a fossil fuel that produces half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal when burned for electricity.

Currently, natural gas and coal-fired power each account for one-third of U.S. power production with natural gas and renewable power advancing and coal rapidly declining. But staunch opponents of natural gas say it may be nearly as bad for climate change as coal when one counts the methane emitted when natural gas is produced and transported. Data in that area are still emerging, although many in the scientific community believe natural gas use poses some climate benefits over coal use.

Industry groups and some environmentalists contend natural gas will be needed to support wind and solar power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. That’s especially true, they say, as more and more nuclear power plants go offline because they cannot compete with cheap natural gas.

Still, some activists are pushing for the country to move entirely to renewable power, and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) has introduced a bill to require 100 percent of power to come from renewable sources by 2050 (Greenwire, July 18).

Shepherd said NRDC believes baseload power like natural gas may be needed in the short term to balance out intermittent renewable power in the interim period before battery storage becomes more affordable and can be deployed at the national scale.

But he thinks the grid already has enough natural gas power on the grid to provide that balance.

NRDC has opposed further build-out of gas pipelines in general unless the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conducts a cumulative assessment of whether more infrastructure is needed, Shepherd said.

Fights over natural gas are playing out at the national level, too. The shale boom in the United States and resulting flood of cheap fuel on the market has come largely from fracking. Environmental advocates have expressed disappointment that Clinton is not including a ban on fracking in her platform but is instead calling for better regulation of the industry (EnergyWire, July 8).

The battles over natural gas are growing so large that the Laborers’ International Union of North America recently launched a campaign to support gas pipeline projects and state legislators who back them. LIUNA also supports renewable power projects where unionized laborers work but is pushing for states to recognize the need for natural gas and its infrastructure as the U.S. power system curbs carbon emissions.

LIUNA representatives claim the opposition to natural gas sometimes "grows in a vacuum" without consideration of how the power system works.

"The march and rally is misdirected and counterproductive," said Terry O’Sullivan, general president of LIUNA. "The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will actually move Virginia closer to a clean energy future and help the state meet Clean Power Plan goals. The governor is demonstrating strong environmental leadership in supporting the pipeline."

‘A transition or a bridge?’

McAuliffe has said the Atlantic Cost pipeline will create jobs. He argues access to natural gas will keep electricity rates down as Virginia consumes more power while aiming for a lower carbon emissions rate.

Those arguments are familiar among governors backing natural gas projects around the country.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), who now directs the Center for New Energy Economy, which assists policymakers with the transition to cleaner power, told a meeting of state environment agencies in Washington, D.C., yesterday that governors must focus on both the economic and environmental legacies they will leave behind.

Natural gas, Ritter said, produces fewer health-harming air pollutants and fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

"I don’t know whether it’s a transition or a bridge. I think it’s necessary now. It’s going to be necessary for a long time," Ritter said. "And we should do everything we can to ensure we have effective regulations in place around our natural gas production and effective enforcement in place. But understand, it is, I think, an important resource for us as a nation."

EPA has issued a final rule for methane emissions from new sources and is working on a regulation to govern existing sources. State agencies are also focused on the issue. Agency directors at the meeting yesterday shared information about how they are trying to address emissions from shale gas extraction.

Tidwell, however, says regulation isn’t enough. He worries investing in costly natural gas infrastructure will lock the region into using it for decades to come and slow renewable power development.

"Advocating for gas is dramatically lowering the moment at which we reach a zero-carbon, fully decarbonized economy," he said.

The groups he will march with want McAuliffe to challenge pipeline water permits, stop supporting offshore oil development and take action to stop coal ash dumping.

"Everything that we’re asking for on Saturday are things the governor can do on his own," Tidwell said.