As local residents, we were thrilled to see more than 400 people from Salem and the rest of Massachusetts come together last Saturday to send a strong message against Footprint power’s proposal for a new gas plant on our harbor.
It has been frustrating to hear how many in Salem have been misled by the claim that natural gas is a “clean” energy source, a falsehood promoted by Footprint Power and other corporations that stand to profit from gas expansion. In reality, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has found that methane (the chemical component of natural gas) is 34 times as powerful a warming agent as carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. This means that while natural gas produces lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal when burned, it takes only a tiny amount of methane leakage to erase the climate savings from gas combustion.
The Salem Alliance for the Environment, which supports the gas plant, has responded to our concerns about methane leaks by voicing support for regulations to reduce such leaks. Unfortunately, their opinion does not change the reality of the gas infrastructure in this country. We certainly can and should reduce methane leakage from Massachusetts pipelines, but we have no power to stop methane leaks in the states that source our gas. There is no way around it — burning more gas in Massachusetts means more methane in the atmosphere and a warmer planet.
Thankfully, there are many climate-safe options for meeting our state’s energy demand. Conservation measures, efficiency and transmission line improvements alone could meet the energy gap that Footprint proposes to fill with its gas plant, never mind the wealth of energy available in our region’s wind, solar and hydropower resources. And with natural gas already supplying 68 percent of Massachusetts’ power, we do not face an immediate problem with the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy. In the long term, we can meet this challenge with sustainable solutions like demand-response programs and following California’s lead of investing in storage capacity.
At the end of the day, there is no need for Salem to allow another pollution machine onto our harbor. We could replace the coal plant with a terminal for offshore wind power, a marine research facility, or one of many other coastal industries. Choosing to invest in zero-carbon alternatives to gas would create more jobs, safer communities, and cleaner air in Salem and across all New England.
We have little time to waste in making this choice. The International Energy Agency projects that current rates of fossil-fuel infrastructure construction will “lock in” dangerous levels of global warming by 2017, a mere three years away. It is past time for Massachusetts to draw a hard line against new fossil fuel investments and commit instead to energy efficiency and renewables.
With 40-year lifespans, gas plants are certainly not an “interim step” or a “bridge” to a clean energy future — they are long-term investments that delay our clean-energy future. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report showing that switching from coal to natural gas will do little to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in the long term. The only way to combat climate change is to transition from coal to renewable energies, not gas.
The energy decisions we make in the next few years will affect our children and other young people for the rest of their lives. It was exciting to see hundreds of young faces visible in the crowd at the rally on Saturday, from energetic college students to toddlers grasping their parents’ hands.
We steadfastly believe that our children and the next generation who will live in Salem and throughout the commonwealth deserve a safe, clean-energy future. The only way to achieve this future is to begin building it today. We must commit to investing only in conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure from this point forward.
Sue Kirby lives in Salem and is co-coordinator of the North Shore node of 350 Massachusetts. Jeff Brooks lives near the power plant in Salem and is co-founder of Grassroots Against Another Salem Power Plant.