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Duke climatologist seeks a halt on gas-fired power plants, Atlantic Coast Pipeline

One of the world’s leading climate scientists said the state’s long-range clean energy plan doesn’t go far enough to curb a potent greenhouse gas.

In a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper dated Thursday, Drew Shindell, Nicholas Professor of Earth Science at Duke University, takes aim at methane, a gas more efficient than carbon dioxide at holding heat. Shindell said in the letter that the state should place a “permanent moratorium” on natural gas infrastructure in the state, including new gas plants planned by Duke Energy and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which the power company is developing with other partners. Natural gas is mostly methane, and it can leak when it is extracted from the ground or flows through pipes.

“In addition to causing possibly irreparable climate damage, such infrastructure is likely to saddle consumers with much greater costs than would a more rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, while also causing additional harm to already vulnerable communities,” wrote Shindell, one of the scientists who helped coordinate sections of International Panel on Climate Change reports in 2013 and 2018. About two dozen former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists and administrators endorsed the letter.

In a telephone interview with reporters, Shindell said Cooper has the opportunity to be a leader in rejecting natural gas.

“We’re urging Gov. Cooper to take the lead,” he said, and provide “an example for the rest of the country, and even for the rest of the world.”

Shindell co-wrote the letter with two former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrators and NC WARN, a nonprofit focused on climate change and a Duke Energy critic.

The state Department of Environmental Quality developed a plan to reduce greenhouse gases from electricity, to become carbon neutral by 2050. When Cooper formally accepted the plan last month, the event offered critics another opportunity to criticize the natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is set to run 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. DEQ issued an important water permit for the pipeline in January 2018, and opponents have been trying to get the state to reconsider ever since. Lawsuits have held up the pipeline’s construction.

In a statement Thursday, Cooper’s office said, “Governor Cooper is committed to a 100% renewable energy North Carolina, and the Clean Energy Plan sets our state on a workable path to get there.”

Duke Energy announced last month it was aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Charlotte Observer reported. The company plans to do that in part by moving quickly from coal-fired plants to natural gas.

In a written response to the letter, Duke Energy said the company has significantly reduced its carbon footprint and is moving to incorporate more sources of cleaner energy.

“Natural gas electricity generation emits less than half the CO2 of coal and one tenth the amount of methane, and allows us to make emission reductions now by retiring coal and bringing on more renewables,” the company wrote.

Dale Evarts, a former director of EPA’s Climate, International and Multimedia Group, called natural gas “a poor second cousin” to coal.

Costs of renewable energy and storage are falling so quickly that it will soon be cheaper to generate electricity from clean sources than from 90 percent of gas-fired plants, Evarts, one of the letter’s authors, said in the interview with reporters.

A transition to renewable energy “will save us quite a bit of money on electric bills,” he said.

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