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Environmentalists balk at state offer of $9M in grants to expand natural gas infrastructure

Methane Leak
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
This Nov. 7, 2022, photo, released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection shows a methane leak at a well owned by Equitrans Midstream at their Rager Mountain storage facility near Jackson Township, Pa. A vent at the underground natural gas storage well in Western Pennsylvania has been spewing massive amounts of planet-warming methane into the atmosphere for more than 11 days.

There was a time when utility companies urged customers to “switch to clean burning natural gas” for home energy needs. But studies over the last 10 years have shown it’s not so clean burning after all. And that has environmental advocates questioning why the Maryland Energy Administration would be offering $9.25 million in grants to expand natural gas infrastructure statewide.

“There are studies that show that when you take into account all the work that goes into extracting and to burning the gas in your home, it's as dirty as coal as far as fossil fuel emissions,” said Emily Scarr, director of the advocacy group Maryland PIRG. “Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.”

The grant, she complained, would subsidize the natural gas industry to expand their services.

“I don't think the government needs to be putting their hand on the scale in that way for technology that is so dangerous and dirty and counter to our state’s goals for global warming emissions,” she said.

The organization wrote Monday to Gov. Larry Hogan and Mary Beth Tung, director of the energy administration, urging them to withdraw the grants.

Eligible grant applicants range from commercial or industrial users like utility companies or any organization such as school districts to expand natural gas infrastructure. The goal is to achieve cleaner air standards and promote economic growth and development, according to an energy administration press release. A little more than a third of it – $2.6 million – has been prioritized for the Southern Maryland counties of St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert, and Frederick County in Western Maryland.

Previous projects under the program known as the Maryland Energy Infrastructure Grant Program replaced diesel gas generators in Worcester County with natural gas generators for the Berlin Municipal Electric Utility which cost $425,000. In Somerset County, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore used $750,000 to convert its campus from heating oil to natural gas boilers. Baltimore City Public Schools used $1.25 million to replace heating oil fired water heaters to natural gas fired water heaters.

In the past five years, the state has given $11.5 million in grants for the program.

The Maryland Energy Administration declined requests for an interview, issuing a statement that said in part the administration is “committed to its mission to promote affordable, reliable and cleaner energy in Maryland” and that it offers a variety of grants to “promote energy equity, decarbonize, and provide affordable, reliable, resilient, cleaner energy sources.”

Jackson Morris, a climate expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, concedes there are some air quality gains to be had by switching from burning coal with its heavy load of carbon dioxide, or CO2, to gas. But studies over the last 15 years show you “pretty quickly hit a brick wall,” he adds, because it’s not zero carbon, it’s just half as much.

“And if we're going to meet our net zero 2050 targets, which are what we at a minimum need to do to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we're not going to get there by continuing to rely on gas,” he said.

While methane only hangs in the atmosphere for 10 years, compared to the thousands of years of carbon dioxide from coal or oil, it’s still a fossil fuel, Morris says. It has other properties that are nearly 30 times more potent than CO2 in driving climate change.

“And when we're talking about a critical kind of turning point for the planet, on how we can slow down the climate change train, and try to even have any chance at preventing the worst impacts of climate change, we don’t have 10 years,” he said.

Better to start converting to electricity through wind and solar sources by taking advantage of the money available in the recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act than to continue to spend money on gas infrastructure, he said.

In addition, there are myriad opportunities for leaks throughout the system, says Amy Mall, an advocate for NRDC. The gas comes out of the ground at the wellhead, goes through a series of valves until it’s squeezed into a pipeline to head to a power plant, or somebody’s gas stove.

And while they had only anecdotal evidence of leaks in the early days of the boom in natural gas production, more sophisticated research over the last 15 to 20 years has revealed increasing numbers of leaks, she says.

“Now, we've got certain kinds of infrared cameras where you can actually see the leakage,” she said. “And the science is showing with measurements even from satellites, that the leakage is much worse than it was thought to be before.”

A recent Maryland PIRG report found 2,600 gas pipeline leaks nationally between 2010 and 2021 that were serious enough to be reported to the federal government. One leak last March led to an explosion that destroyed a four-story apartment building in Silver Spring. Last Friday, the Associated Press reported a vent at an underground natural gas storage well in Western Pennsylvania had been spewing about 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day into the atmosphere for more than 11 days.

David Lapp, the Maryland People’s Counsel, says the grants aren’t necessary because utilities bake the cost of the infrastructure into their customer’s gas bills.

“Where they make their money and where their investors profit is from the pipes, concrete and other infrastructure that is part of the delivery system, the distribution system,” he explained.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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