the northeast’s carbon emissions are far below targets — not just because of more restrictive laws, but because of the sudden availability of cheap and abundant natural gas that is pushing carbon-spewing coal plants to the verge of extinction. The amount of the region’s energy that comes from coal has plummeted from 18 percent in 2000 to 6 percent last year.
It’s against this encouraging backdrop that the city of Salem is confronting the impending closure of its aging coal-fired plant in 2014. The move could not be more symbolic: after the last coal fumes waft out of the smokestack, the property’s new owners hope to replace the plant with a new, state-of-the-art gas-fueled facility.
The end of the coal plant is surely good news. Yet the plans for a gas plant on the site have provoked some anxiety on the North Shore — a microcosm of the mixed feelings many environmentalists have about the sudden surge in gas production nationwide.
Natural gas, after all, is still a fossil fuel. Burning it still contributes to climate change, albeit less so than coal. There are also concerns about the drilling methods used to extract natural gas, such as the effect on nearby water supplies and the release of methane involved.
Yet those are arguments for better technology and regulation, not arguments against gas extraction per se. The bottom line is that each new gas-fueled plant is a nail in coal’s coffin, and the trend should be encouraged as long as the plants are properly regulated and continue to push down overall carbon emissions. This approach doesn’t preclude a much-needed push for renewable energy, either.
Plans for a gas plant on the site have provoked some anxiety.
Meanwhile, Salem is weighing a separate set of local concerns. The coal plant has been Salem’s largest taxpayer and a significant employer for decades. Understandably, many local officials are eager to lay out the red carpet for Footprint, the company that purchased the site in August and wants to build the gas plant. Apart from the jobs and the tax revenue, the proposed new plant would also take up less space on the site, potentially opening up valuable land for redevelopment.
Yet the city — and the state — shouldn’t rush into anything. This summer, Salem officials backed legislation that would have virtually guaranteed the gas plant long-term contracts. This was too generous to a private operator, and legislators rightly rejected it.
The legislation that passed instead initiated a study of whether the region’s electricity grid needs a plant in Salem at all. If regulators determine a replacement is necessary, they will then be allowed — but not required — to order utilities to enter into the long-term contracts that would make a new plant financially viable. Gas should have a role in New England, but only a deliberate public process can establish whether a gas plant is what’s best in Salem.