Hot on the heels of my brilliantly convincing post about Sarah Palin and the triumph of feminism, I now turn to an uncontroversial little issue brewing out in Clatsop County: the proposed Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal at Bradwood Landing. Voters roundly rejected a piece of it in a Clatsop County referendum Tuesday, enviros hate it, and from what I can see, it makes Democrats skittish. It is a ... combustible issue.
But hey, isn't that exactly why we have blogs? Let's have a discussion. As a talking point to get us started, I'll throw this out there. In addition to the jobs and economic benefits (it's supported by several unions) and the need to fill future power deficits in the Northwest--facts uncontested, so far as I know--the central benefit of LNG is reducing carbon emissions.
We think of the Northwest as having fairly green power thanks to hydro--and we do. We get 42% of our power from water. But an identical amount (41%) comes from coal, a dirty, carbon-heavy source of power and a major cause of global warming. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing just 40% of the CO2 produced in coal plants. And a new technology can boost natural gas's efficiency, further reducing emissions per kilowatt generated:
[T]he combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) [is] a new technology for natural-gas power plants borrowed from jet-engine design that is nearly twice as efficient as traditional plants, boasting 70 percent efficiency compared to the 30 to 40 percent efficiency of plants that burn oil and coal.
It is not a final solution, obviously. LNG is a transitional fuel--we can't replace coal with totally green tech like wind, wave, and solar for literally decades. In that time, we'll be burning fossil fuels; either dirty ones like coal, or cleaner natural gas.
In 2006, the US produced over 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by burning coal, almost the same amount as we produced burning gasoline. The issue isn't conservation and green tech versus natural gas--that would be a no-brainer. It's the choice between the coal and natural gas during the interim as we build green capacities.
There are a thicket of details to the issue, and I'll run through some of them below the jump. Where you come down on the Bradwood Landing proposal depends in large measure on how you weight the issues. The more I learned about them for this post, the more I became convinced that it should definitely be on the table. As I understand it, Bradwood Landing would create good jobs, generate a fair amount of tax revenue, provide a source of energy for the NW grid, and immediately reduce emissions from coal plants. I know that many of you have different opinions, and some of you probably know a lot more about the issue than I do. As always, I look forward to a robust discussion.
Here's a run-down of some of the other issues that are at the center of the debate.
Environmental concerns about the project revolve mainly around the ecosystems of the Columbia River. Specifically, would preparing the site damage the habitat of fish and other species?; would dredging for the project harm species?; what effect would drilling the pipeline have on streams, forests wetlands, etc?; what is the danger to the region and river if there is a spill or catastrophe?
As I write this post, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering NorthernStar's Bradwood Landing proposal. In their draft Environmental Impact Statement, they concluded that the proposal was "environmentally acceptable." NorthernStar has agreed to a series of "mitigation" efforts designed to address these concerns (too technical and voluminous to mention--though maybe we can get into them in comments). I am no naif when it comes to believing the promises of oil and gas companies; even the assurances of FERC and other regulatory agencies is no longer wholly reliable under the current administration. This is one of the areas NorthernStar's proposal should be examined very carefully, and monitored very closely for compliance. But no technology comes without trade-offs, so these worries should be taken in the larger context of overall environmental impact due to energy production.
Burning natural gas isn't the only factor to consider in calculating emissions--you have to figure in extraction and shipping, as well as the energy expended to liquify and re-gasify LNG as well (aka the "lifecycle"). Still, when you also take into account the extraction and shipping costs of coal, natural gas is still lower in total emissions. We can wander rather rapidly into the weeds here, because there was a Carnegie-Mellon report that supposedly compared lifecycles of LNG to coal, finding that coal was less polluting. Problem is, they threw in carbon sequestration, a technology that's wholly theoretical at this point, and probably many years or decades from implementation. (Even Greenpeace rejected these findings--"False Hope: Why Carbon Capture and Storage Won't Save the Climate," May '08). Bottom line: compare current technologies and LNG emits half the CO2 over the whole lifecycle (PACE, 2007).
Safety is apparently a major worry for many people, but this seems a less significant concern. LNG is only combustable when mixed with between 5 and 15% air, so an explosion risk is low. If it's released as a liquid, it evaporates as methane and leaves no residue--so there's no Exxon Valdez risk. Terminal accidents are extremely rare--one happened in Cleveland in 1944, another in Maryland in 1979, and one in Alaska in 2004. And in the 50 years since LNG has been shipped (nearly 50,000 trips), there has never been a shipping accident. NorthernStar plans to implement a number of safe-transportation protocols, including double-hulled ships, security escorts, and a 500-yard safety zone. Weirdly enough, petroleum tankers, despite a far more flammable cargo, don't use these measures, and they cruise right up the Columbia.