An industry that has become ubiquitous on Pittsburgh’s energy scene — and one that might stand to benefit most from proposed carbon pollution standards — was conspicuously missing from two days of hearings and protests on the federal proposal.
Natural gas companies and their trade groups sat out the Environmental Protection Agency hearings in Pittsburgh, as they have generally abstained from commenting on policies that could harm coal but help natural gas.
It was environmentalists and health advocates that brought gas into the picture at the hearings, warning the EPA that, in addition to targeting carbon dioxide, it should also mind methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s the main component of natural gas production.
It is associations like this that may have contributed to natural gas’ silence on the issue. As Randy Albert, then chief operations officer of Consol Energy’s gas operations said in 2012, the two fuels shouldn't “cannibalize each other.”
Speaking at Platts’ Appalachian Gas Conference in October 2012, Mr. Albert referenced what he perceived to be a federal “war on coal” but warned that coal was just the first and most convenient target. Once it’s off the table, the regulatory hammer will come after natural gas next, he said.
“Gas benefits more than anything else from the retirement of the coal plants, at least short term,” Mr. Albert, now president and CEO of a West Virginia-based consulting company, Shale Advisory Group, said this week.
But “there’s no place in the fossil fuel industry for one fuel to attack another,” he said. “It’s a war on carbon. That’s what it’s a war on.”
Several speakers at the EPA hearings last week alluded to that thought.
“Today’s focus is on new federal regulations that would ultimately reduce coal usage,” Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said. “And there is other federal action underway that could make natural gas extraction more difficult. So where are we to get the electricity to keep the lights on?”
But gas groups, which have typically touted the role of increased natural gas generation in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions over the past several years, sat out the affair.
No representatives from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents the major unconventional oil and gas operators in this region, testified at the Pittsburgh hearings.
Same was true for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, whose members are oil and gas producers and whose mission is to increase demand for their fuel.
“This is a very complicated rule, and we are taking a close look at it,” said Dan Whitten, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based group. “Depending on how they structure it there’s a whole range of implications on natural gas.”
Mr. Whitten said his organization is studying the rule, paying special attention to the “out years” to see if after the coal impacts come the gas pains.
“Our point of view is, with or without this rule, there’s going to be growing demand for natural gas,” he said.
Even the International Brotherhood of Electric Engineers, whose members showed up en masse both at the hearings and at the massive anti-EPA protest on Thursday, didn’t mention that they’d be just as needed at natural gas power plants as in coal-powered ones.
That’s because, as one IBEW member explained, a gas power plant needs about 20 electrical workers. A coal plant requires about 150.
Others, at the hearings, tried to extract an economic bright side from the proposed regulations by calling attention to the gains imminent for natural gas.
“If Pennsylvania, for example, takes advantage of the standard’s flexibility, there will be an equal amount of employment created in the natural gas industry as lose from fuel switching,” said the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network.
However, most supporters of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan who mentioned gas did not do so kindly.
John Detwiler, an engineer and member of the anti-fracking group Marcellus Protest, decried EPA’s proposal for “putting one fossil fuel in place of another.”
“As it stands, the EPA’s proposal simply encourages substituting natural gas for coal in electric generation,” Mr. Detwiler said. “This is a timid proposal. At best, it begins to acknowledge that something needs to be done. But it doesn't really challenge our business sector, and it doesn’t offer much hope for escaping climate catastrophe.
“What we need is a plan that begins to leave carbon in the ground,” he added.
Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club’s “beyond natural gas” campaign, similarly argued in testimony Thursday that the proposal should be improved so as to favor the use of renewable energy over fracking.
While several coal companies sent representatives to testify at the hearings, Cecil-based Consol did not. The company has presented its exposure to coal, albeit much diminished in the past year since its $3.5 billion sale of five coal mines to Ohio-based Murray Energy, as a benefit.
“Our ability to produce both natural gas and coal allows us the flexibility to provide an energy solution to utilities that burn either fuel,” the company said in its latest corporate presentation.
While natural gas is the “de facto” choice for new generation, the company’s presentation said, its coal is well positioned to pick up demand for non-retiring coal plants.