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Editorial: Let's see how natural gas really stacks up

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Posted on July 3, 2013 |
By Angelo Lynn



The request by a few members of the Addison County legislative delegation to have the Public Service Department prepare a study on the economic and environmental cost of two proposed Vermont Gas Systems pipelines through the county is right on target, though, perhaps, a few months tardy.

The charge to the PSD is to provide “a full, least-cost analysis, on a life-cycle basis” of the pipelines compared to two other options: maintaining the status quo or delivering liquified natural gas to Addison County businesses and letting residents continue with the fuel sources they have.

A least-cost analysis on a life-cycle basis should cover the gamut of expenses, from extraction to delivery to fuel efficiency at the point of consumption. That applies to the economics of the type of fuel used as well as to the environmental impact of the fuel.

Of particular interest is the amount of pollution, particularly the release of carbon dioxide in the fracking process used to extract natural gas, caused by the escape of methane gas at the well-head. According to a 2011 Cornell study recently being cited by the Conservation Law Foundation, there is an increase in global warming pollution from natural gas use because of methane emissions in the extraction process. The study was used by CLF to suggest that most of the natural gas used in the Addison pipelines would come from gas extracted through a fracking process — a hypothetical assumption, at best.

The rub will come from applying the same standards to fuel oil, then adding the pollution required from transportation via train or truck to the site of distribution, most often requiring delivery to a central station or several, refueling smaller trucks, and then delivery to the final destination. Getting an exact comparison won’t be easy.

Still, what’s good about the request of the PSD is that conflicting testimony makes it very difficult to determine what’s factual. Vermont Gas Systems cites studies showing natural gas is about 55 percent less expensive than propane and about 40-50 percent cheaper than fuel oil, while producing 25 percent or so less carbon dioxide pollution at the point of consumption compared to fuel oil. The Cornell study would seemingly refute the environmental aspect of that information by suggesting the carbon dioxide pollution is actually worse if considered from a wholistic perspective. Furthermore, that the cost to society of that added pollution actually makes natural gas more expensive to consume than fuel oil. That would be news to the fuel industry, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but if it’s true it would be important for the PSD and PSB to know, as well as Vermont residents.

VGS welcomes the study. They’re convinced the facts will show that natural gas is less expensive and less harmful to the environment. If so, will opponents concede and agree that the expansion of natural gas into Rutland County is in the state’s public good?

Most likely not. That’s because no matter the short-term facts, even in a life-cycle cost analysis, opponents maintain that consuming more natural gas moves Vermont and the country in the wrong direction in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

They might be right, but even that is not a sure thing.

Here’s the logic: natural gas would be just one available source of fuel to use. Competition breeds lower prices. The introduction of a new fuel source into the economy, at the very least, puts downward pressure on prices, and only increases the consumption of that fuel if the facts determine it is the best value for the dollar.

In terms of the environment, if this country advances enough in our thinking that we adopt a carbon tax, it could be that renewables become less expensive to use and their proliferation (wind turbines, in particular) would be the next topic of concern: likely the spoilage of the state’s visual beauty. Even so, current science suggests that neither the state nor the country has enough thermal energy to power our industries (renewable energy doesn’t always provide an adequate source of heat), so current capacity is still needed to provide an adequate load. Twenty years from now it could be a different story, but right now there isn’t enough fuel from renewables to turn the wheels of business, and surely nobody is advocating a retreat from power sources that provide the critical, yet scarce, industrial jobs the state still retains.

Moreover, from a business perspective it’s easier to be more flexible in our use of energy if we’re operating from a strong economy with an abundance of fuel options. If businesses are barely hanging on, they’ll opt for cheap energy use (even if the environmental cost is high) every time over higher cost fuel.

Ideally, state and federal policy should be spurring fuel diversity, while promoting renewable production as rapidly as possible and implementing tax policies that levy a burden on the fuels that do irreparable harm. In the meantime, the PSD should agree to do the study and, at the very least, clarify the impact each fuel has on the economy and environment.

— Angelo S. Lynn

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