On a windy weekday this spring I took my bike out to the very northwesternmost corner of Rhode Island, a place of long rural roads through rolling rocky and piney hills. I went with copies of the maps from the 426 page application by the Invenergy corporation to build a 700 million dollar natural gas power plant.
Biking along the country lanes was striking. Before giving up counting, I tallied over 75 homes with signs opposing the plant. This is no elite movement: signs were in front of many modest vinyl-sided homes, one with an American flag painted on the rock at the end of the driveway and another with “Faith, Family, Friends” emblazoned on it.
My decision to oppose the Invenergy “Clear River” Energy Facility was based on several problems with using “fracked” natural gas. 1. highly toxic and secret mixes of chemicals are injected underground at extremely high pressures, risking groundwater contamination and earthquake activity. 2. Artificially cheap fracked gas delays Americans from investing in a real solution: renewable power like wind and solar power. 3. Third, natural gas when burned causes global warming. Switching from coal and oil to gas is only a half-measure—creating short-term reductions in emissions but locking us into long-term stagnation at dangerous levels. And the stuff leaks. A lot.
Leaked methane (natural gas, CH4) is far worse than carbon dioxide in creating climate change. How much worse? By different metrics it is 20, 80 or even 100 times worse than CO2 if one looks over shorter time periods. All the claims of gas being better than coal are based on low estimates of leakage and low multipliers in the warming it creates.
My bike trip to Burrillville showed me that Americans can stop the expansion of fracking and other fossil fuel infrastructure, and finally help America meet its potential to make the switch to renewable energy and confront the climate crisis.
Natural gas was a bridge fuel that helped break the death grip of coal and fuel oil over our politicians. However the average electricity in New England’s grid is now lower in “carbon intensity” (CO2 per Kilowatt Hour) than the juice that a new Burrillville plant would put on the wires.
That is, because we already have renewables and nuclear fuel powering our lights, we’ve already crossed a bridge that this plant would take us back over, in the wrong direction. For this reason, the Burrillville facility will make it impossible for Rhode Island to meet its targets for greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 and 2035. It is also not needed, as the grid operator has more than enough suppliers in 2019 and beyond.
Governor Raimondo has to fight for jobs for Rhode Islanders. But this plant is a very short-term fix with 150 construction jobs and just 20-30 permanent ones. Meanwhile, the RI Clean Energy Jobs Report showed that 4,000 new clean energy jobs were created in 2015 alone. In our shift to a low carbon future, we need to assure that many of these are good, union jobs.
Massive amounts of scientific findings show that to stay below dangerous levels of climate change, we cannot get locked into another generation of fossil fuel infrastructure. This is why stopping the Burrillville plant is not merely a NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) issue. This is a NIABY or NOPE issue: Not in Anybody’s Backyard. Not on Planet Earth.
Timmons Roberts is Ittleson Professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. He is on Twitter @timmonsroberts. These views are his own.