Monday numbers (plus): NC celebrates greenhouse gas report, but fracking, wood pellets and natural gas pipelines might spoil the party

Monday numbers (plus): NC celebrates greenhouse gas report, but fracking, wood pellets and natural gas pipelines might spoil the party

- in Environment, Top Story
(Photo: DEQ Greenhouse Gas Inventory draft report)

The summer of 2018 ranks among the wettest on record in eastern North Carolina, a consequence of climate change and its driver — greenhouse gas emissions. The NC Department of Environmental Quality’s draft Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows the state’s contributions to a warming and unpredictable global climate, but also portends possible good news: North Carolina is expected to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent to 28 percent by 2025, which would achieve or exceed the national goals. Already, the state has reduced its gross GHG emissions by 20 percent over the past 12 years, even while the population and economic productivity grew by 18 percent.

The inventory accounts for six greenhouse gas pollutants. (Science alert: Emissions are listed in millions of metric tons — which, at 2,200 pounds, is slightly greater than a US ton. The GHG are also expressed as “carbon dioxide equivalents” because the pollutants’ contribution to climate change varies.)

However, these projections depend on many variables, both in policy and practice, and the draft report acknowledges these uncertainties. For example, the calculations don’t account for the folly of timbering North Carolina trees for fuel. Enviva, which operates three wood pellet plants in North Carolina, with a fourth pending, chops up hardwoods and some pines, timbered in eastern North Carolina. The company then ships the pellets by rail to the coast, and from there by ship to the United Kingdom. There, the pellets are burned in place of coal under the guise of renewable energy. But, as the state’s report points out, many credible scientists have noted that the burning of wood for fuel generates more carbon dioxide than coal. The mass timbering also upends the balance of carbon sinks — trees — that absorb the greenhouse gas.

Nonetheless, carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of biomass are considered “carbon neutral” (for political, not scientific reasons) by the Environmental Protection Agency and International Panel on Climate Change. North Carolina has convened a “panel of experts,” the report states, to help improve calculations of emissions and sinks from land clearing. These calculations will be included in future inventories.

It’s also unknown if fracking will secure a foothold in North Carolina, although if state Oil and Gas Commission Chairman Jim Womack could wave a magic wand, Lee and Chatham counties would have a well pad on every corner. Nor is the impact of natural gas projects the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the proposed MVP Southgate project fully factored into the state’s GHG equation.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is proposing to relax fuel efficiency standards from an Obama-era that would require the automakers to produce fleets with an overall average of at least 54.5 mpg by 2025.

The report forecasts that the supply and demand for renewable energy will increase, likely considering Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent executive order directing state agencies to drastically reduce their overall GHG emissions by 40 percent and convert to cleaner fuels. However, the mercurial nature of the legislature could also come into play, particularly regarding renewable energy. The 18-month wind energy moratorium, rammed through by Sen. Harry Brown last year, expires on Dec. 31. However, lawmakers convene for a special session on Nov. 27, and an appetite for extending the hiatus, or rolling back other clean energy reforms, will hinge on election results.

DEQ has published the Greenhouse Gas Inventory for public review; comments can be filed through Dec. 14.  Email the Division of Air Quality at [email protected] with a subject heading of “Inventory.” The revised final inventory will be posted by Jan. 31, 2019.

185 million — Metric tons of GHG emitted in North Carolina, 2005
148 million — Metric tons emitted, 2017
141 million — Metric tons of GHG emissions, 2030, estimated

25 — % emissions reductions over past 12 years
32 — % emissions reductions, 2005-2030, estimated
4 —  % emissions reductions, 2017-2030, estimated

Of the current 148 million metric tons of GHG emissions:
35.6 — % emitted by electricity generation
31.4 — By transportation
12.5 — By industry
  7.1 —  By agriculture
 5.9 —  By waste disposal, such as landfills
 3.9 —  By commercial buildings
 3.6 —  By residences

But reliance on natural gas pipelines, the potential for fracking, and timbering of old-growth forests could upend these equations:

68 million — Estimated metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases emitted annually by the entire Atlantic Coast Pipeline –West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina
20 — Number of coal-fired power plants to equal the ACP emissions
86 — Times the GHG potency of methane, compared with carbon dioxide. Methane is emitted by fracking and natural gas pipeline operations.
5.77 million
— Metric tons of carbon dioxide stored in NC forests
844,580 — Acres of trees that would have to be planted to store that tonnage

Source: NC Department of Environmental Quality,, Climate Central, US Energy Information Administration