There were two excellent natural gas articles in the paper at the end of February. One was that AEL&P/Avista’s plan to bring natural gas to Juneau is on hold indefinitely. AEL&P is Alaska Electric Light and Power, our hometown power company that has been phenomenal since 1893. They’ve been innovative. Their crews have kept Juneau running through avalanches, deepwater cable failures, fires and a hundred other things. They’ve worked hard for us on many great projects and I’m sure they put a lot of effort into the natural gas scheme. The people interviewed in the article weren’t happy that it got axed but I was. I went out on the back deck and danced like Fred Astaire. At a time when the whole world is desperately trying to get off fossil fuels our town was seriously considering a ten-year, $130 million plan to: build a regasification plant at Sheep Creek, buy (fracked?) Canadian natural gas, liquefy it, truck it down to Seattle, ship it up to Juneau, convert it back to natural gas at Sheep Creek and then, “Run gas lines under the city’s roads in public rights of way to every home and business they will supply.”* What could possibly go wrong?
Several people who are really dialed into this tried to explain it all to me and I’d keep asking, “Wait, what was that part about digging up the town for ten years, again?”
In the scenario, home and business owners would have had to shoulder the cost of converting from whatever they’re using now to natural gas. The project, and how much, if anything, people would save, depended on 1) low interest loans, 2) the price of natural gas staying low compared to oil and, 3) how many people signed on to convert their homes and businesses. As of 2015 the loans looked like they’d go through but in 2016 the price of natural gas was all over the chart. Natural gas prices are measured in million British Thermal Units (mmBTU). Analyst Art Berman** pointed out that the Henry Hub spot price for natural gas more than doubled between April and December. He predicts natural gas will average $3.50 to $4.00/ mmBTU this year. This might have something to do with why the project in November, 2015 was $130 million and fifteen month’s later in February, 2017 the price tag was $170 million.
As far as who would want to convert, the projected 78.6 percent of Juneauites who would be on board might be optimistic. Local businesses and public facilities have been installing ground source heat pumps. Air source heat pumps for homes are selling like hotcakes. The NOAA lab has a sea water source heat pump and is now carbon-neutral. The Coast Guard has a wind generator downtown. Solar panels have evolved to where they can gather light even on cloudy days. Oil burners are smaller and cleaner, hardly recognizable from what they were even a few decades ago. Woodstoves heat longer on less wood and super efficient rocket mass heaters are the next wave. Most people I talk with recognize that it’s urgent for our country to get off fossil fuels. Which brings us to the second story.
The Cook Inlet Natural Gas Pipeline Leak
Every day since at least Feb. 07 a 52 year-old pipeline owned by Hilcorp has been puking hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of natural gas into Cook Inlet. A pipeline in salt water sprung a leak after 52 years operating. Gosh, who could have seen that coming? The usual players went into spill mode where the company makes lame excuses and lowballs the damage. Advocacy groups announce, “Those guys are some greedy so and so’s.” The Department of Environmental Conservation humiliates itself. The public expresses indignation on social media. The legislature gargles phlegm and calls for drilling ANWR. Here’s how it’s playing out.
Hilcorp claims they can’t just shut down the pipeline. Water might get in and release crude oil from days long gone when the pipe used to carry crude….there’s ice in the Inlet so divers can’t work….the company consultants say…
Hold it. Just hold it right there. Full stop. You can’t shut it off? Would you buy a house with no shut offs to the water supply? Here at Woodshed Manor there’s a water main shut-off valve at the street, another where the pipe comes into the basement, two shut-off valves below every sink, two on the hot water heater, one on each toilet, one on the inside wall of each outdoor spigot and two on the boiler. Altogether there are eighteen shut-offs, two pressure reliefs and a one-way valve along the lines. Why? Because we don’t want water spewing all over the place from a blown pipe for even five minutes. And that’s for clean water. You’re pumping poisonous gas and you tell us it takes you a month or more to shut down an eight inch pipe? From what I read Jeffery Hildebrand who owns this thing is worth over five billion dollars. Guys with five thousand million dollars should expect to buy some valves or plan on not pumping while there’s ice in the Inlet.
At least two advocacy groups are suing Hilcorp. Cook Inletkeepers website says Hilcorp could shut the ruptured pipe down but won’t because they’d lose money . You can read it here and see a picture of Jeffery himself, https://inletkeeper.org/blog/hilcorpgasleak . The Center for Biological Diversity is also going to sue Hilcorp claiming a variety of pipeline and environmental safety violations.
DEC made their inevitable “roll over and pee on ourselves” tail waggings: there is little danger to the public, they’ve asked the company for more information, they are sort of monitoring the situation except they don’t have the needed monitoring abilities. Little danger to the public? DEC knows pipeline quality natural gas is 98 percent methane. They know US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent between 2002 and 2014. They know methane is 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. They know Cook Inlet beluga whales are at risk and natural gas spills create dead zones that kill beluga prey species. That’s not what they talk about. You can almost visualize someone at DEC dying a little on the inside with each announcement.
To be clear, the real problem with DEC is not the people who work there, it’s with us in the public. We don’t support DEC’s mission enough, we expect people who are paid peanuts to go up against billionaires and politicians who are funded by billionaires. We turn away after the first week of every spill and one could only wish that spills would evaporate so fast as our attention.
Even as we exited Alaska’s Legislature was gushing about ‘the future’ as voluminously as Hilcorp’s pipeline was gushing methane. The House passed joint resolution 5 asking Congress to drill ANWR 32-4 on a day in late February while something in the neighborhood of a quarter million cubic feet of methane went into Cook Inlet and the atmosphere above to become part of our children’s future.
*11.01.2015 “Bringing LNG to the CBJ” Juneau Empire. Sam Degrave.
**01.23.2017 ‘The Days of Cheap Natural Gas Are Over” The Petroleum Truth Report. Art Berman.