The replacement of a heavily polluting coal power plant with a much cleaner natural gas facility would once have been welcomed by almost anyone concerned about climate change. The fact that plans to do just that in Salem have aroused opposition from some environmentalists reflects both the urgency with which advocates are demanding a transition to a post-fossil-fuel America and the fact that this region’s success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions has dramatically raised the standards for what counts as efficient in today’s energy mix.
Those opposing the Salem plant are surely right that any new investment in power generation should be consistent with the goal of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the supporters — who include the state government and Salem’s mayor — have expressed their willingness to use the plant as a short-term bridge to a clean-energy future. As long as they and the plant’s owners produce a plan showing how that will happen, both sides should be able to embrace this plant as a reasonable step toward reliable power generation and a cleaner environment.
Natural gas, which emits fewer carbon emissions than coal or oil, has come to account for two-thirds of the state’s power, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The benefits of supplanting the dirtiest of fossil fuels has been enormous. The level of greenhouse gases in New England dropped so dramatically that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative last year slashed its carbon dioxide emissions cap from 165 million tons to 91 million tons. The cap will continue to drop 2.5 percent per year from 2015 to 2020.
But natural gas, as a fossil fuel, still releases carbon into the atmosphere. In his State of the Union address, President Obama described natural gas as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy.” But the Sierra Club calls gas a “bridge to nowhere,” saying the chemicals and emissions involved in extracting new gas reserves with hydraulic shale fracturing, or fracking, are dirty and dangerous.
The local manifestation of this dispute is the fight over the 63-year-old, coal-fired Salem Harbor Power Station, which occupies 65 acres of land and has the capability of powering nearly 750,000 homes. Its new owner, New Jersey-based Footprint Power, is planning to shut the coal plant in June and build a technically advanced gas plant on only about 20 acres, freeing up 45 acres to create a shoreline promenade, retail space, and a cruise ship dock. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll welcomes the plant with open arms for those benefits, as well as the improvement in air quality and nearly $5 million in annual tax payments.
Footprint CEO Peter Furniss says the plant will start off as a crucial supplier of electricity to New England’s often strained power grid, especially as the Vermont Yankee nuclear station and the Brayton Point coal plant come off line. But Furniss says the Footprint gas plant will eventually taper to a role of firming up energy supplies as more solar and wind sources come online under Massachusetts’ aggressive green-energy policies, which require an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The state’s facilities siting board approved the plant last fall, saying it “contributes to a reliable, low-cost, diverse regional energy supply with minimal environmental impacts.” Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Rick Sullivan says the plant is part of the “balancing act” of maintaining reliability while converting to a clean-energy future.
But some environmental watchdog groups don’t buy it. The Conservation Law Foundation has filed an appeal of the plant’s approval with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the state is undermining its long-term emissions targets. The lawyers assert that regional CO2 emissions have already dropped close to the level of modern gas plants, meaning that adding another one does nothing but maintain the status quo. The CLF wants more proof that the plant will not derail the long-term goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
As a mid-sized city seizing a rare chance to revitalize its waterfront, Salem is understandably eager to build the plant. The Patrick administration makes a plausible case for the need to get the plant online to assure that Massachusetts has enough power at peak periods. But the conservationists also make an important point: Today’s energy decisions must be viewed in terms of the fight to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. There should be a plan on paper for the plant to operate at levels that don’t impede the achievement of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Gas powers the economy for now, but the state must clear the way for a clean-energy future as soon as technologically feasible.