News | May 2, 2024

Massive methane gas buildout puts our communities, climate at risk

The South is facing the one of the largest methane gas buildouts in the country. (Credit: Kristian Thacker)

The South is facing the one of the largest methane gas buildouts in the country, as utilities regionwide continue to propose new gas plants and gas pipelines that would lock us into yet another fossil fuel for decades, derailing the transition from coal to clean energy.  

Swapping coal for gas as the next frontier of fossil fuels will increase pollution in Southern communities and put climate goals firmly out of reach for another generation. 

What is methane gas? 

Methane is a super pollutant — a fossil fuel that is one of the world’s most potent, dangerous greenhouse gases and poses tremendous risks to our health and climate. Methane is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. It is the primary component of what utilities call “natural gas.”  

Most commonly extracted through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” using horizontal drilling and pumping chemicals into the ground to break up shale formations, methane gas poses pollution risks at every level of its production and use.

What are the health and cost risks of methane gas? 

Eyes on the Mountain Valley Pipeline from a Boones Mill window in Franklin County, Virginia. (Credit: Julia Rendleman)

Methane gas power plants and compressor stations threaten surrounding communities — often communities of color who have already borne the brunt of harm from industrial facilities for decades — with dangerous air pollution. This includes pollutants like fine particulates and formaldehyde which are harmful even at very low levels. Methane pipelines and other infrastructure are also prone to leaks and explosions. 

In addition to implications for public health and quality of life, volatile fuel prices and the major financial investments of plants and pipelines pile on more financial strain for Southern families who are already paying some of the highest monthly electric bills in the nation.

What are the climate implications of major gas buildouts? 

Burning methane gas releases carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change, and methane itself is an aggressive greenhouse gas when it leaks into the atmosphere from pipelines, compressor stations, and fracking wells. According to the International Energy Administration, methane is responsible for 30% of the rise in today’s global temperatures. 

Given the South’s outsized contribution to the climate crisis and vulnerability to the resulting impacts communities regionwide are already experiencing, utilities should not make new long-term investments in another fossil fuel. 

Greg Buppert, SELC’s Regional Gas Team Leader

How are gas expansions playing out across the South? 

The Tennessee Valley Authority is proposing one of the largest gas expansion buildouts nationwide, spanning four states with eight new fossil fuel plants along with two new gas pipelines proposed so far. These facilities are estimated to release millions of tons of climate-warming gases every year, worsening climate change impacts and exposing communities of color to even more pollution. 

TVA recently announced plans for a new combustion turbine gas plant in south Memphis at the now retired coal-fired Allen Fossil Plant.

Predominantly Black neighborhoods in south Memphis are already overburdened with industrial facilities and building another dirty gas plant there will make pollution and the environmental injustices these communities are facing even worse.   

Other gas fights ahead  

Utilities in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia are also looking to make major investments in new gas capacity. According to utility plans in SELC’s region, monopoly utilities are planning to add nearly 33,000 megawatts of new methane gas-fired power plants by 2038.  

To fuel these plants, developers are pursuing significant new interstate pipelines and expansions of existing pipelines. The recently proposed Southeast Supply Enhancement project — the largest pipeline project in the South in a decade since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline —would affect states from Virginia to Alabama and deliver up to 1.6 billion cubic feet of methane gas per day, primarily to Duke Energy and Southern Company utilities for new power plants.  

What are the alternatives for a better energy future? 

Demand from both residential and industrial customers for cleaner, more affordable energy options like solar, wind, and battery storage only continues to grow across the South. And unlike the expensive cost of gas plants and pipelines, the price of these clean options continues to drop.   

Investing in more energy efficiency and reducing barriers to renewable energy regionwide will help to address the high energy burden communities are facing, lowering monthly bills while creating local jobs.

Learn more about gas fights across the South and how to take action.  

What’s next? 

This push by utilities to make generational investments in methane gas comes at a critical moment to act on the climate crisis and will ultimately determine our climate future.  

SELC and our partners are pursuing all legal and policy avenues to stop this gas grab: filing lawsuits against proposed plants and pipelines, challenging utility plans in public utility commission proceedings, advocating for renewable energy alternatives, and working to leverage federal climate action.