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Pipeline's plan to offset greenhouse gas emissions questioned by environmentalists

Pipeline's plan to offset greenhouse gas emissions questioned by environmentalists

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A methane abatement system at a West Virginia coal mine uses technology similar to one to be built through carbon offsets purchased by Mountain Valley Pipeline.

If natural gas begins to flow through the Mountain Valley Pipeline a year from now, as its developers expect, the operation will produce about 730,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

Airborne emissions of carbon dioxide from three compressor stations along the 303-mile pipeline, along with methane expected to leak from the buried steel pipe, have long been a concern of opponents who say that delivering huge amounts of fossil fuel to markets will only worsen a climate change problem that is rapidly overheating the earth.

On July 12, Mountain Valley announced a plan: The company will spend at least $150 million over the next 10 years on carbon offsets, which will be used to construct a massive methane abatement system at a coal mine in far Southwest Virginia.

The mine is currently authorized by the federal government to release methane, generated by digging through rock formations, to prevent underground concentrations of the volatile gas from exploding and killing miners. A massive machine to be installed at the mine would convert the methane into water vapor and carbon dioxide before it is released into the air.

Mountain Valley says the reduction of greenhouse gases will be roughly equivalent to what its pipeline will produce.

The company will thus fight pollution from coal while meeting its goal of operating a carbon-neutral pipeline, said Diana Charletta, president and chief operations officer of Equitrans Midstream Corp., the lead partner in a joint venture building the controversial pipeline.

“Mountain Valley supports the science behind climate change and acknowledges the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while we provide safe and reliable natural gas to meet the growing energy demands of the region, both now and in the future,” company spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an emailed response to questions.

Critics are not convinced.

The Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, two organizations that have participated in legal challenges of the pipeline, called the $150 million plan a “green-washing” campaign to put a clean face on what is really a “pay-to-pollute” scheme.

“Decision makers and the public should not be fooled: this offset scheme does nothing to change the fact that MVP is a dirty fossil fuel project that would pollute our communities and exacerbate the climate crisis,” Patrick Grenter, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, said in a statement released shortly after the July 12 announcement.

The methane abatement program would only offset the environmental cost of transporting about 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day — leaving unaddressed the emissions caused when the gas is drilled by fracking and when it is burned by individuals, businesses and power plants once it reaches markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the country.

“While Mountain Valley’s carbon offset plan laughably props up a coal company, it also wildly misrepresents the pipeline’s actual greenhouse gas footprint,” Willie Dodson and Jessica Sims, field coordinators for Appalachian Voices, wrote in a blog on the group’s website.

The pipeline will account for about 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year, equivalent to the output of 26 coal plants or 19 million passenger vehicles, both organizations said. They cited a 2017 analysis by Oil Change International, which advocates for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Cox questioned those numbers.

“It is disappointing but not surprising to see activist groups that oppose any and all natural gas infrastructure pushing misinformation and relying on flawed methodologies and assumptions to justify their continued opposition,” she wrote in an email.

However, Mountain Valley only provided the 730,000-ton estimate for the operation and maintenance of the pipeline.

The company said it could not speculate on the actions of other parties who extract the gas from the earth before it enters the pipeline, or those who use the fuel once it reaches its final destination.

The pipeline, which will pass through the New River and Roanoke valleys, has been cited repeatedly over the past three years for violating erosion control regulations.

But with construction almost done, attention is turning to concerns about air pollution.

How carbon offsets work

A carbon offset is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in one place to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere. Because climate change is a global problem, the theory goes, exact locations do not matter.

It could be as simple as someone who is concerned about the environmental impact of flying overseas on a jetliner. Using an online calculator, the person would determine how much greenhouse gases they are responsible for and then purchase a carbon offset from a third party that is reducing pollution by, say, planting trees.

But when the largest natural gas pipeline ever to be built in Virginia enters the picture, things get more complicated.

Mountain Valley says it will pay about $150 million for the offsets, which will be verified and registered by the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington. Founded in 1996, the registry describes itself as the first private voluntary offset program in the world.

Each offset represents the reduction or removal from the atmosphere of an equivalent to one metric ton of carbon dioxide.

According to the registry, Mountain Valley will pay a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, a major renewable energy company, which will then register the offsets. The methane abatement project would be constructed, owned and operated by NextEra, with the offsets then being retired.

Another subsidiary of Next Era is a 31% partner in Mountain Valley, a joint venture of five companies building the pipeline.

Such an arrangement creates a “tangled web” of a company investing in a project that contributes to climate change while at the same time taking credit for reducing pollution, according to Sims, the Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

Participation by Mountain Valley and Next Era is voluntary, and the carbon offset industry is largely independent.

Nether the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy nor the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has a role in the methane abatement program that the offsets will support, the agencies said.

“There has to be oversight to see if they [the companies] are doing what they claim they are doing,” Sims said.

NextEra is the largest provider of solar and wind energy in the world and possesses an in-depth knowledge and experience with carbon markets, Cox said.

“As a trusted partner, NextEra is the most logical entity to oversee this work,” she wrote in an email.

Curbing methane from coal mines

The methane abatement system planned for a coal mine in Southwest Virginia will be the largest of its kind in the world, Mountain Valley says.

A piece of machinery called a regenerative thermal oxidizer will be built in two phases, the first of which will be operational next summer and the second in the spring of 2023, according to the company’s announcement.

Such an oxidizer is the only technology capable of handling large amounts of methane that are vented out of coal mines, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Air with diluted levels of methane enters an oxidation chamber, where it reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius.

The process converts the methane into carbon dioxide and water vapor, which is then released into the atmosphere. While carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, methane has a global warming potential at least 25 times greater, the EPA says.

Once in operation, the project is expected to reduce underground coal mining emissions statewide by about 25%, Mountain Valley says.

The company has not publicly identified the coal mine, other than to say it is a metallurgical operation in Southwest Virginia, near the West Virginia line. Metallurgical mines produce coal that is often shipped overseas and used in the manufacture of steel.

Private contractual obligations prevent disclosing the the name of the mine, Cox said.

“I’m puzzled as to why they would omit the name of the mine if they are putting this out there in such a public way,” Sims said.

Metallurgical mines make up about 85% of the active coal mines in Virginia, according to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. An official with the Metallurgical Coal Producers Association said the group does not know the location of the abatement system.

While methane is vented out of all coal mines for safety reasons, there is no abatement program like the one planned by Mountain Valley in Virginia, and only three others in the United States, according to the American Carbon Registry.

The registry lists 32 methane emission reduction projects in nine states. Those are generally smaller projects that use different methods, such as burning the methane off in flares or using it as an energy source.

By employing carbon offsets, Mountain Valley is compensating for a pipeline that is not yet in service — and one that opponents say is not needed and will only exacerbate the use of natural gas in the U.S.

Mountain Valley counters there is a public need for the gas, which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined when it approved the project in 2017.

In their blog post, Sims and Dodson wrote that “reasonable people can disagree” over whether carbon offsets are an effective way to combat climate change.

“But what is not up for debate is that carbon is either emitted, or it is not,” they wrote, and in the case of Mountain Valley, it should not be.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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