A decade ago there were four coal-fired power plants across Massachusetts, blazing away in Holyoke, Somerset and Salem. The last of them, the Brayton Point generating station in Somerset, closed in June of 2017.
With those facilities closing down, one could easily think that Massachusetts is on the road of combatting run-away climate catastrophe. Coal has long been the marked demon of the climate world, understood to be the most carbon-intensive way of generating electricity. Activists pursuing the “war on coal” did so with understandable focus. Often along the way to coal’s demise, fracked methane (so-called “natural” gas) was touted by economists, politicians and even environmental groups as a clean “bridge fuel” to fill the gap between coal and the full-deployment of renewables.
And there’s reason to understand why that was the case. In addition to its emissions, coal wreaks devastation through mountaintop removal mining and cancer and asthma causing particulate and heavy metal emissions where it’s burned.
It turns out, however, that fracked methane gas is just as bad as coal in climate changing terms. We have known for a long time that methane is 25 times more powerful in heating the planet than CO2 over a 100 year period. In 2011 researchers at Cornell University published a groundbreaking study that showed that between 3.6-7.9% of the gas may leak from well and drilling sites: more than enough to make the total emissions from drilling and burning as bad as coal in forcing the climate to change. It is a bridge to nowhere.
Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure would set back the transition to renewable sources and likely make it impossible to make the sorts of drastic emissions reductions necessary to avert the works possibilities of climate catastrophe, politicians and investors continued to push for new fracked gas power plants.
In May, 2014, the Salem Harbor Power Station was decommissioned after being bought by a new company: the ironically named Footprint Power. Footprint Power has demolished the existing coal-fired plant and is now in the final stages of building a 674 megawatt fracked gas power station on the same site. This new power station was supposed to be completed in 2017, but delays are ongoing.
Knowing what we know about methane and fracking, and what we know about how far we have already pushed the planet’s precarious climate system, building more fossil fuel infrastructure signals the moral bankruptcy of our society. We have screwed up, and now we must repent, change, and move beyond our complacency that these atrocities to present and future generations are happening before our eyes.