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February 02, 2018

Vermont Trailers v. the Tanker from Siberia



Truck with Logo_0



In the recent winter cold snap, the LNG tanker GASELYS hooked up in Everett near Boston to discharge what’s assumed to be Siberian natural gas into the dangerously depleted pipelines of southern New England.  The arrival was well reported as was the irony of an almost energy-independent US being dependent on gas from sanctioned Russian producers.  Much more quietly, trailers from NG Advantage (NGA) were already delivering natural gas from Vermont to our southern neighbors whenever we had adequate supplies and they didn’t (full disclosure: I cofounded the company and own a stake in it). NGA will continue these deliveries as long as there is a need.

Both LNG (liquified natural gas) tankers and CNG (compressed natural gas) trailers are examples of virtual pipelines, delivery capacity that moves to routes where it’s needed.  However, the unloading facilities for LNG tankers are huge; the one in Everett was built when it was thought the US would run out of natural gas. CNG can be unloaded much more simply from trailers into existing natural gas pipelines.  The gas NGA delivers to southern New England currently comes mainly from Canada though a pipeline which enters the US at Highgate, VT.  It’s an easy argument that it’s better for us to be dependent on North American supply than Siberian; an even easier one that it’s better to create jobs in rural New England than in Siberia.

There are two main reasons why southern New England has an increasing appetite for natural gas on cold days: the shutdown of nuclear plants and a switch from coal and oil to much cleaner natural gas for electrical generation. When natural gas is used to generate electricity, there is 50% less carbon dioxide emitted than when coal is used and 26% less than when energy comes from oil.  Moreover, there is no soot and almost no Sulphur dioxide or nitrous oxides when natural gas is burned nor is there any black smoke.  The switch from coal and oil to natural gas is a huge environmental plus and is the reason why the US was able to meet its carbon reduction goal under the Kyoto treaty it never signed even when the actual signatories weren’t.

There is a huge supply of natural gas just a few hundred miles west of New England in the Marcellus shale. Normally the east-west pipelines are adequate to carry what New England needs. But, during winter cold snaps, the demand exceeds pipeline capacity. The cost of natural gas can increase tenfold or more on the spot market. Oil and even coal powerplants replace gas-fired generators so that there will be enough gas to keep houses warm. The air gets dirtier and electricity gets more expensive, even in Vermont, which gets much of its electricity from the New England grid now that Vermont Yankee is closed.

There were plans to build much more east-west capacity.  But new pipelines didn’t get permitted. Three arguments were used against them:

  1. I don’t want a pipeline through my town to serve people in New England;
  2. We shouldn’t build permanent infrastructure for any fossil fuel even if we’re replacing a fossil fuel which emits more pollutants;
  3. The pipelines are only needed part of the year so they don’t justify the investment or right-of-way required to build them.

In my view, argument one is simply NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). NIMBY’s been around since before the Roman roads were built.  Property owners need to be properly compensated but the greater good must prevail or we’d have no infrastructure.

Argument two makes the perfect the enemy of the good; it boils down to polluting more now than we have to because we don’t yet have an ideal energy source.

Argument three is sometimes right. It would not be justified, for example, to build a pipeline from Vermont to southern New England to relieve a fraction of winter shortage.  Where a physical pipeline isn’t justified or hasn’t been built yet, a virtual pipeline can deliver the energy needed. If there comes a time when the energy isn’t needed or a pipeline is built, the trucks can go work somewhere else.  For example, NGA delivered natural gas by truck to Middlebury, VT before the Vermont Gas pipeline to that city was finished. Middlebury business and institutions got some of the economic and all the environmental benefits of natural gas earlier than they would have otherwise.

Environmentally, it’s better to burn Siberian natural gas than coal or oil; but it’s much better to burn North American gas and create jobs here.  NGA and its competitors don’t have the capacity yet to make occasional tanker visits unnecessary; but we’re working on it.

See also:

Natural Gas vs. Climate Change

Vermont Shouldn't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

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