Stalled gas pipelines could push power grids back to oil and coal
Hindering the expansion of natural gas pipelines could drive a reversion to dirtier energy sources like coal and heating oil, especially when sufficient infrastructure for renewable energy is not yet in place.
Why it matters: Greater demands on the power grid have led to more natural gas pipelines in the Northeastern U.S., but several proposed pipelines have been canceled or delayed due to public pushback. Inhibiting their construction could inadvertently produce greater emissions and lead to more air pollution.
- While renewables’ share of energy generation has begun to replace natural gas in warmer, sunnier states like California, the Northeast’s colder, darker weather does less to facilitate such a transition.
- The development and extension of several Northeastern pipelines, such as the National Fuel Northern Access Pipeline and the Constitution Pipeline, have been delayed for years.
- Yes, but: It does have its own negative environmental impacts, such as methane leakage, and pipelines are often associated with dangerous explosions.
Where it stands: In 2017, the Northeast Census region consumed more than 3 billion gallons of heating oil to combat the cold, accounting for 85% of the fuel’s total U.S. sales.
- Replacing heating oil with natural gas would bring near-term gains in air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Yet halting pipeline expansion could slow that transition, potentially increasing reliance on oil and coal — which have fallen from 19% and 14% of the Northeast’s electricity generation to just 1%. Shutdowns of carbon-free nuclear plants across the region have compounded the challenge.
What’s needed: The transition from pipeline-based natural gas energy generation will require more investment in renewable energy infrastructure and policies like those New York has used to significantly boost solar capacity.
- Researchers have found that trying to decarbonize the electric grid without sufficient energy storage can increase carbon emissions, but developments in utility-scale battery technology could help.
Karen Clay is a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and Tepper School of Business.