Natural Gas: A Bridge To Nowhere

Matt Haugen

Here in Michigan, two $1 billion natural gas power plants were recently approved in Handy Township and East China (along with a $500 million plant in Delta Township). These will replace several coal-fired plants that are set to close in the next few years. This is being hailed by regulators and industry as a win-win: slash carbon emissions without any disruption to the status quo and build a “bridge” from coal and oil to our inevitable renewable energy future. But the real story is much dirtier.

When burned, natural gas emits around half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, has made extraordinary reserves of natural gas accessible for extraction in recent years (around 4.3 million barrels per day), and in our capitalist society that gas needs buyers in order to have value. Not coincidentally, this has led to an explosion in popularity and positive press for natural gas. But the untold billions of dollars lining shareholders’ pockets have obscured the true cost. A recent report from the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility “uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health”—it poisons water, air, and land. And a recent NASA study suggested that the recent surge in methane, which is 86 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, has come from the fracking boom—methane often leaks from natural gas production and distribution. This makes natural gas potentially even worse for the climate than coal.

The Handy Township plant proposal from Competitive Power Ventures was facilitated by Ann Arbor SPARK, a nonprofit “catalyst for economic development.” SPARK received 70 percent of its 2017 operating budget ($1.743 million) from public sources, including $75,000 from the City of Ann Arbor. Why are we using public funds to further entrench an energy system that is destroying the biosphere? Perhaps the bloodless notion of “economic development” is fundamentally at odds with the idea of a just and sustainable society.

clip art style picture of factory with smokestacks and hand tools
Is any and all economic development—no matter who directly foots the bill—justified regardless of its effect on the environment?

And as for DTE Energy’s East China plant proposal, an analysis from solar and environmental organizations using DTE’s own data showed “that a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and demand response” could be used instead of this plant and would cost $339 million less. So why is DTE pursuing this path? Notably, the company owns a 50% stake in the new and terrible NEXUS pipeline that will transport fracked gas from Ohio to East China, a clear conflict of interest. As a regulated monopoly, DTE is limited on the rates it can charge and thus the profits it can earn, so this may function as something of a lucrative workaround. Perhaps private ownership of the means of energy production and distribution is also fundamentally at odds with the idea of a just and sustainable society.

The fact that massive new natural gas plants are even being considered in 2018 is ludicrous. Humanity stands at an epochal crossroad—we are heading toward a cliff and we still have the ability to change course. If we want to mitigate catastrophic harm to vulnerable populations and literally save humanity, we must halt the ecological destruction our energy systems are causing by swiftly ending our reliance on fossil fuels and taking into account that renewable energy production has its own ecological drawbacks. That means we must demand a fundamental reorganization of society, not just replacing fossil fuels with solar panels; we live in an ecosystem and must recognize the biophysical limitations of this if we want to survive and thrive. What we have on Earth is a perfect accident, the most unlikely and beautiful thing in the known universe, and we must not take it for granted until it’s too late. The good news is that we can build a better world with a society based around life instead of profit.

Matt Haugen is the co-chair of Huron Valley DSA and a proud member of the DSA National Climate & Environmental Justice Working Group