Why proposed pipeline is a bad idea

The Northeast Energy Direct (NED) natural gas pipeline is a hot topic in southern New Hampshire.

Objections have been raised on environmental, financial, citizen’s rights and safety grounds, and many such concerns are supported by verifiable facts. Some favor the pipeline as a potential generator of local jobs, cheaper electricity and regional prosperity, points that are controversial.

There is a bigger picture, however, a backdrop against which the NED drama is playing out, that largely renders these vigorously debated local and regional issues irrelevant.

The company behind NED is a subsidiary of $125 billion Texas-based Kinder Morgan, which builds transport infrastructure for coal, oil and gas, and moves those fuels for a fee. Kinder Morgan operates roughly 70,000 miles of natural gas pipelines. These are high-pressure, high capacity “transmission” pipelines, not the locally operated low-pressure distribution pipes to homes and businesses.

Kinder Morgan is not alone in seeking to build or expand such transmission pipelines to or through New England, and faces significant competition despite obvious aggregate overcapacity reflected in the plans.

Why is this?

The answer lies in forces beyond New England, beyond corporate quarterly statements, and far beyond the immediate concerns over NED. It is rooted in the breathtaking pace of technological advancement, in resource competition and power struggles on the global stage, and in politics at many levels.

Shale formation

Underneath Pennsylvania, West Virginia and upstate New York lies the Marcellus shale formation. Locked up in tiny pockets of the fine-grained 390-million-year-old sedimentary rock are prodigious quantities of methane gas. Estimates of the total quantity of natural gas in the Marcellus, over an area of 100,000 square miles, range up to 1,500 trillion cubic feet. Barely a decade ago this was deemed unreachable, but the marriage of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and advanced horizontal drilling techniques has changed that virtually overnight. Perhaps 10-30 percent may ultimately be recoverable using current technology, let alone future technology.

The Marcellus is the largest known gas deposit in the country, and the second largest in the world. Deep beneath the Marcellus lies the less accessible yet also extensive Utica shale. The potential market value of these deposits alone is in the trillions of dollars.

These estimates are extraordinarily potent for driving national policy, and providing market incentives for construction of pipelines just like NED. The financial lure of export to lucrative overseas markets, the geopolitical importance of European dependence on Russian natural gas, and the political capital to be made from championing domestic production, are fueling a wave of investment in permanent gas infrastructure the likes of which has not been seen in decades. The same is happening with fracked oil, as well as bitumen from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta, with multiple new pipeline projects of which Keystone XL is but one. The scale of construction is enormous.

It’s about politics

This is about national and international politics, and the raw, immediate prospect of staggering financial gain for government and corporate interests. This is why natural gas will be pumped not to, but instead primarily through New England and New Hampshire, from the Marcellus to the coast. It is a bad choice for our region and our state, but symbolizes a disastrous long-term choice for our country and for the world.

Human inventiveness is now amplified and accelerated by ever-smarter machines to a pace never before approached in the history of civilization. Burgeoning technological power yields not just promise, but also a capacity to do great harm.

We have long possessed the technical ability to end civilization in a nuclear holocaust, but have somehow refrained from pulling the trigger.

More ‘tripwires’

But there are other, less obvious, yet massively destructive tripwires that we will surely stumble into should we lack clear vision.

Global fossil fuel deposits have as yet barely been tapped. Our cleverness at extracting hard-to-reach coal, oil and gas means that if we wish to carry on burning it indefinitely, we can. Our nuclear trigger is similarly the product of cleverness, and similarly demands wisdom to avert disaster. The fuel extraction technologies of giant multinational corporations are available worldwide; the negative consequences of unfettered use, of stumbling into that tripwire, are appallingly clear.

Fossil fuel use is strongly perturbing our natural environment, the best known example being the 30 percent increase in directly measured atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in recent decades. Is this causing global warming? It is fashionable, and sadly, politically expedient to be skeptical, but more CO2 causes less heat to radiate from the planet into the cold of space, and more heat to be retained. This is an unavoidable and readily calculated physical fact transcending the charged debate – there are no mysteries here.

What’s genuinely tricky is figuring out exactly where that extra heat ends up, what changes it will drive on regional scales that matter most to humanity, and when. Not if, but when.

Not long ago, debate focused on skin cancer rates, refrigerants were replaced, and the ozone layer is now recovering. Discouragingly, few discussed ocean plankton and a disrupted marine food chain, which was a much greater danger. Today, debate rages about things like sea level rise and waterfront properties.

This also tragically misses the point, and society seems blind to the true perils of a problem far tougher to solve than the ozone crisis.

Rapid climate change already underway will inevitably shift rainfall patterns, moderately in some regions, dramatically in others. Possibly a wealthy country like the U.S. can adapt to prolonged droughts and frequent floods, but the lower 48 states comprise just 5 percent of the world’s land area and population.

What of droughts and floods in the other 95 percent, what if monsoons fail and rice crops falter, if ocean currents shift slightly and local fisheries collapse? Changes on this scale are all but inevitable, and are in progress today.

How will developing nations cope, and how can their economies grow, their populations experience prosperity or benign government survive? Displaced people, desperate people, and the disillusioned driven into poverty and need by a bewildering and changing world are all too easily led astray, as humankind’s long, bloody history has shown countless times. The violence will not be cheap nor easy to deal with, thanks to that same, pervasive technological power we increasingly enjoy, but those with hostile intent will ruthlessly exploit.

This is not some apocalyptic prediction of collapsing ice sheets and drowning cities 100 years from now, it is dangerous real world consequences in the near term.

This forbidding future is not yet inevitable. Climate change cannot be stopped but it can be slowed, some time can be bought, and societies can be given a fighting chance to adapt. Development and deployment of energy efficient technologies, energy storage capacity, and low carbon energy generation can make a real difference. Solar cells are plummeting in cost, and contrary to conventional wisdom and fossil fuel lobbying, can make a major contribution as they are already doing in Europe. We can harness the unmatched innovation capacity of the US to help create cost-effective low-carbon technologies for a 21st century world.

All this is futile, however, if we double down on fossil fuels, and in particular if we invest vast sums of money in permanent fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the NED pipeline and others like it. Once such infrastructure is in place, the marginal cost of extracting and shipping the fuel is so low that incentives to develop alternatives are permanently suppressed. The costs of dealing with the many and dire long-term consequences of fossil fuel use are ruinous, and are chillingly real.

It is time to oppose multi-billion dollar pipelines like NED, one by one, and time to instead invest in clean solutions that not only meet our energy needs, but do so while respecting the planet, and ultimately keeping the peace.

Dr. Colin Lonsdale, of Amherst, is an astronomer who directs the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Mass. Observatory staff use radio-based techniques to study deep space phenomena, to measure the precise orientation of the earth in space, and to probe complex processes in the upper atmosphere, including the effects of climate change.

The opinions expressed are those of Dr. Lonsdale as a private citizen and do not represent MIT.