The good and very bad of Cantwell-backed energy bill

Fracking natural gas (1)

Fracking has helped expand oil and gas production in Wyoming.

The Puyallup tribe has filed a lawsuit against Puget Sound Energy to stop a $275 million LNG facility in Tacoma. They argue that the LNG facility would breach their fishing rights as guaranteed by the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, negatively impact the health of their communities and pose a significant public safety threat to a densely populated urban area.

The Puyallup are far from alone in their opposition to LNG: The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians unanimously passed a resolution in opposition to the siting of LNG facilities in or near tribal lands and major population centers. And grassroots groups have been holding frequent protests at the site of the construction, including one last month in which almost, nearly 100 protesters sat in front of bulldozers in order to prevent pipeline from being laid. Yet, even as the Puyallup sue to stop the project, PSE, an Australian-owned corporation, continues laying pipeline on Puyallup land, indicating that when it comes to environmental racism the gas industry is as culpable as the rest of the fossil fuel industry. Tomorrow, there will be a regionally coordinated action that will see protesters visit at least 12 Puget Sound Energy offices across Washington.

Stating their opposition to the project, Puyallup tribal Chair Bill Sterud has complained, “The Puyallup Tribe has received complete disregard of the consultation obligations ... when attempting to address the Tacoma LNG plant and its associated pipelines proposed to be constructed within and adjacent to the Puyallup Reservation in Washington." It is a disregard in the consultation process that has echoes of Standing Rock. Puyallup tribal Councilmember David Bean has pointed out that if there was an explosion at the facility, I-5 would be within the blast zone. The fear of an explosion is not a difficult one to understand; it is less than two years since Seattle witnessed a gas explosion that damaged much of the heart of Greenwood.

As all this goes on, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have teamed up to write an omnibus energy bill, the Energy and Natural Resources Act 2017. The bill would do some good things: it would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the country’s most successful conservation program; it would provide support for state and local governments efforts on energy efficiency and for further research development of alternative energy technologies. Nevertheless, the Energy and Natural Resources Act 2017 would be a disaster for our ability to curtail climate change — and our ability to stop projects like the Tacoma LNG.

Over 350 green groups — including, Food and Water Watch, and Friends of the Earth — have signed on to a letter expressing explicit opposition to the bill. Bill McKibben has described it as “a shameless giveaway to the polluting oil and gas industry.” Sen. Bernie Sanders has complained that the bill will “make us more more reliant on fracking for natural gas for decades to come.”

The main reason for the concerted opposition to the bill is that the Energy and Natural Resources Act 2017 would facilitate the expansion of the gas industry — in Murkowski’s summary of the bill she states that it will “streamline pipeline permitting, facilitate LNG exports” — and gas is an absolute disaster for our climate. A crucial fact that Sen. Cantwell seems to be having a very hard time accepting.

Yes, as executives from the gas industry are fond of pointing out, it is true that, when burned in a new, efficient power plant, gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than a typical new coal plant. But that is only part of the story. Gas production leaks huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that, over a 20-year period, is up to 86 times more potent in creating global warming than carbon dioxide. This is not a side point. This is the whole story when it comes to gas: Countless studies, including from the National Academy of Sciences, have found that the methane from fracking virtually eliminates any beneficial impacts of gas production, causing the Union of Concerned Scientists and others to state that if the U.S. electricity grid transitions from its reliance on coal for power production to using mostly natural gas, there would be virtually no reduction in emissions as a result.

Even more concerning, most of these studies only look at methane leakage at the source of extraction: natural gas also leaks when distributed. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reports 45 incidents within New Jersey’s natural-gas distribution network alone over the last 20 years — five of which were deadly. In Boston, several studies have found high concentrations of methane in the atmosphere as a result of natural gas, posing a threat to human health and contributing to climate change.

Besides climate change, there are huge concerns around the air and water pollution caused by the gas industry: water contamination from fracking has been documented in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Mexico to name just a few. Others have found that gas development can affect local and regional air quality, including resulting in an increase in pollutants known to cause “respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.”

Air pollution, water pollution, climate change, environmental racism: These are the defining qualities of the gas industry. And it is with these concerns on their mind that a dozen organizations recently called upon Sen. Cantwell to host a town hall to answer questions about the Energy and Natural Resources Act 2017.

With top climate scientists telling us we have but three years in which to dramatically reduce our emissions, we must end fossil fuel use as soon as we possibly can. That’s a goal that assuredly will not be met by a bipartisan energy bills that further enables gas infrastructure.

Sen. Cantwell should discuss with her constituents their fears that the bill she is championing will create even more LNG fights in Washington state, and beyond.


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