North Carolina Has Big Decisions Coming in the Future of Emissions and Offshore Energy
October 26, 2015
Everyone is in on the discussion of climate change.
That’s not to say everyone has the same ideas of what should be done about it, whose fault it is or whether it even exists, but it seems like climate change is being thrust to the forefront of almost every political conversation (except, notably, the primetime GOP debate in August).
Politicians will address the societal reasons why something should (or should not) be done about rising temperatures and sea levels. Most scientists will present the environmental reasons to act on climate change. Even religious figures are weighing in, presenting the moral reasons to act. Pope Francis published his encyclical in June, calling on 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to address climate change, and recently a group of 60 Muslim clerics and scholars published the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, imploring 1.6 billion Muslims to do the same.
President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency joined the conversation in early August by debuting their Clean Power Plan. The 1500-plus-page final rule provides nationwide and state-specific goals for reduction of carbon emissions by 2030. Goals to which, at least for now, the states must adhere.
Those goals involve decreasing emissions from existing plants, installing more efficient and less emissive technology in new power plants, diversifying the states’ energy portfolios, and increasing the use of renewable energies. The end result should be a decrease in both overall carbon emissions and carbon emitted per unit of power produced.
Depending on how you look at it, North Carolina has a leg up on meeting the EPA’s goals. North Carolina falls near mid-pack when compared to the goals other states must meet. State legislation such as the Clean Smokestacks Act has already made North Carolina a regional leader in reducing air pollution and North Carolina is not as dependent on coal power (widely considered among the “dirtiest” and most emissive power sources) as other states.
That said, coal power still accounts for more than 40% of North Carolina’s energy, and the improvements already made to North Carolina power plants make reducing the use of coal even more difficult. As such, while Attorney General Roy Cooper and others support the EPA plan, others, including DENR Secretary Donald Van der Vaart and the State Senate want to scrap it and create a new state-built plan.
Legal battles have commenced over whether or not the EPA has the power to mandate such sweeping reforms to the energy sector, but whether the EPA’s Clean Power Plan or a North Carolina-built version wins out, the goal will still be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. North Carolina’s renewable energy industries and natural resources again give the state a leg up.
Despite the recent loss of a tax credit for renewable energy, North Carolina ranks first in the Southeast and fourth in the nation in solar energy capacity, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing $48 million in loans and grants for solar investments in the state.
Amazon and the Spanish utility company Iberdrola also recently agreed to build an industrial-scale wind farm in Eastern North Carolina, the first of its kind in the state. While none of the energy produced there will be used in North Carolina, this project demonstrates that North Carolina’s coastal plain is well suited to these types of farms.
North Carolina also has natural resources in abundance that can be used for energy. As of 2012, North Carolina got 2% of its energy from biomass, a figure that could increase with dedicated areas for biomass growth and harvest.
The ocean is perhaps North Carolina’s most prized resource, and scientists are currently researching ways to harness the natural energy of offshore wind, waves, ocean currents and the tide to help power the state.
But if the ocean is North Carolina’s most prized resource, then natural gas is its most controversial one. Natural gas is widely considered a “cleaner” fuel than coal or petroleum and a possible transition fuel between those two and other renewable sources. As of 2012, North Carolina gets 17% of its power from natural gas, but there is room to expand.
North Carolina ranked 19th in the nation in natural gas consumption in 2013 and was not present on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s list of 32 states that produced natural gas in that year. That may soon change, as in 2014, Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill allowing the State to issue permits for hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in North Carolina.
While no one is sure how much or how little natural gas North Carolina has stashed in shale underground, interested companies may, as of June 2015, receive the State’s blessing to look for and extract it.
But there are places to find natural gas other than deep in North Carolina’s shale beds. Landfills, hog lagoons and wastewater are all capable of producing methane, which can be harvested and burned as natural gas.
These sources, however, are more of a drop in the bucket of available energy. The biggest source of natural gas outside of mainland drilling and fracking goes back to North Carolina’s most prized resource: the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) the outer continental shelf of the Atlantic Ocean (ranging from about 40 to 200 nautical miles off the coast depending on where you are) most likely contains at least 11.81 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As a comparison, the United States consumed 26.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2014.
That may not seem like much, but 11.81 trillion cubic feet is the BOEM’s low estimate. The average estimate is 37.51 and the high estimate is 67.69 trillion cubic feet and proponents of offshore natural gas drilling point out that those estimates continue to rise as scientists survey more of the continental shelf. Indeed the average estimate of undiscovered and technically accessible natural gas has increased by 20% since 2011.
In January, the Obama Administration opened a portion of the Atlantic coast (from Delaware to Northern Florida) to exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas, while limiting drilling off the Alaskan coast.
No drilling has yet commenced—in fact, searching for it has barely begun—but if and when it does, North Carolina could very well be the epicenter of the operation. North Carolina is right in the middle of the proposed drilling area (pictured left) and the Outer Banks are geographically speaking the closest points to the outer continental shelf drilling area.
Proponents of Atlantic drilling, such as the American Petroleum Institute, say the offshore energy industry could bring 55,000 jobs, $4 billion in revenues to the state and another $4 billion per year to the state economy by 2035. Apart from the economic incentives, proponents could cite this as a way to quickly transition away from coal and toward natural gas.
That said, offshore drilling is a complete non-starter for many environmental groups. The memory of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is still fresh for many. Again, the ocean’s standing as a prized resource in North Carolina comes to the fore in the argument over offshore drilling.
North Carolina sports beautiful beaches on the Outer Banks as well as rich fisheries and archaeologically significant shipwrecks that contribute to the cultural and economic wealth of the state. There are also biologically important reefs and sea turtle hatcheries along the coast, and sharks, dolphins and whales that cruise the waters. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill are still being analyzed and felt in the Gulf of Mexico, and a similar spill off the North Carolina coast could put all of these rich resources in jeopardy.
But in this case, the anti-drillers are in the minority. According to an American Petroleum Institute poll, 71% of North Carolinians either “somewhat support” or “strongly support” offshore drilling compared to 21% who either “somewhat oppose” or “strongly oppose” it. And in keeping with that sentiment, the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management began accepting submissions for offshore oil and gas exploration plans in January.
But even searching for oil and gas off shore is not without controversy. The Division of Coastal Management has yet to issue a permit for a seismic survey of the waters off North Carolina—though they have accepted for review plans from 4 companies to conduct seismic surveys.
Seismic surveys (also called reflection seismology) involve using sound waves to map the ocean floor and the rock underneath. A series of air guns blast a vibration through the water, and those vibrations can travel through water, sand and rock before bouncing back toward the surface. Based on the type of vibration and how long it takes to return to the surface, a scientist can tell how deep the water is, what the landscape of the ocean floor looks like and what sorts of rock formations exist underneath.
Marine scientists frequently employ this technique to study the geological processes of the ocean. In oil and gas surveys, scientists can determine whether there might be oil or gas around, and whether or not to drill there, based on what they see under the ocean floor.
But this testing for oil could potentially harm marine life. Many scientists and ocean advocacy groups maintain that seismic testing can affect whales, dolphins, sea turtles, cod and many other marine species.
The logic goes something like this: whales and other large marine species are used to swimming around with a certain level of background noise. When seismic testing begins, the whales can feel the vibrations going through the water as sound. Seismic testing vibrations are designed to penetrate kilometers-thick rock and bounce back to the surface so to a whale or dolphin, the noise is incredibly loud and keeps bouncing around so it stays loud.
While these findings are somewhat controversial, some scientists claim that the loud and frequent noise of seismic tests can cause large animals to run away from the noise, abandoning their foraging grounds. Other research has shown that the vibration is loud enough to deafen sea turtles and kill fish eggs—though again, many dispute these findings.
BOEM released a set of guidelines in 2014 regarding protection of marine wildlife during seismic surveys. These measures placed some areas off-limits to seismic survey while also protecting the known migration routes of right whales. In their proposals to the Division of Coastal Management (starts on page 10 of this particular proposal), geological imaging companies made provisions for lookout men, whose sole job it was to scout the area for whales, dolphins and turtles, and ramp-up procedures that gradually increase the intensity of the vibrations so marine life can get away before the full blast hits.
But opponents of seismic testing say these measures are not enough. Research has shown that seismic tests can cover an area as great as 300,000 square kilometers, far beyond the range of a lookout with a pair of binoculars. The ocean advocacy nonprofit Oceana claims that 138,500 marine animals could be at risk if seismic testing for natural gas begins in the Atlantic Ocean.
So far, no permits have been granted for seismic testing, but the push toward offshore energy in North Carolina has not stopped. In June, BOEM permitted the Virginia company ARKeX to begin doing aerial surveys off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina using a technique called full tensor gravity gradiometry.
Essentially what this technique does is find structural anomalies beneath the ocean floor. Gravity, very simply, is an attractive force caused by the mass of an object. We are held on the Earth because the Earth is massive enough to pull us toward it.
Beneath the ocean floor there is rock, and rock, having lots of mass packed into a tight space, has a specific gravitational profile. If the rock was porous, filled with little pockets of oil or compressed gas, the mass would be different and thus gravity would look different. ARKeX uses instruments that are able to detect gravitational gradients—that is how gravity changes as you move in 3D space—and changes in those gradients from the air and make an image of what's going on underneath the ocean floor.
The issue is the gravity gradiometry images are not as good as seismic ones, as ARKeX president John White told the U.S. House energy subcommittee in July, and many view the gradiometry images as a way to better inform where to do seismic surveys. Currently, however, all seismic surveys (not just in North Carolina) are on hold while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluates their effect on marine life. A decision is not expected until December 2015 at the earliest.
While North Carolina and the rest of the country wait on the four proposals for seismic tests with the Division of Coastal Management, the North Carolina Senate is gearing up to fight the Clean Power Plan, fracking permits are available for the taking and renewables wait in the wings for tax credits and investors. As these energy decisions emerge and subside over the coming months and years, emissions, climate, the environement and the economy will rise and fall with them.
— Daniel Lane
Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.