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West Virginia officials see clean power trouble ahead for natural gas

WHEELING, W.Va. — Natural gas generates less carbon dioxide pollution when burning than coal does, so electricity plants using the alternative fuel have a better chance to meet the standards of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Still, West Virginia University Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences Chairman Michael McCawley believes the diesel fuel motors used by trucks and compressor stations – as well as methane flaring, leaking and venting that may occur at processing plants – in the natural gas industry may thwart the Clean Power Plan’s intended health benefits.

Additionally, R. Dennis Xander, past president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said he believes it is only a matter of time until Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency turns its regulatory authority on his business.


“Natural gas can replace coal – no question. We just need additional pipeline infrastructure. But should it? And is that what is best for the U.S. economy? I think not,” Xander said. “If, with the stroke of a presidential pen, Obama can destroy an important, vibrant industry like coal, he can do the same thing to the oil and gas industry, or any other industry.”

“This is not about the environment and global warming. This is about the redistribution of wealth and propping up energy prices for countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Xander added.

Over the last few years, McCawley has studied the air quality impacts of drilling and fracking in the Northern Panhandle. He found high levels of benzene in the air near one Wetzel County well site, which he said were so bad that those in the area should have worn respiratory protection.

“When it is burned, natural gas produces less carbon than coal. But, the production can be a problem,” McCawley said. “The gas compressor stations have blow-off valves that can reduce the pressure when needed. If you don’t shut it off, you could let too much of the stuff blow out into the environment.”

McCawley acknowledges that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. The U.S. Energy Information Administration The shows 76 percent of carbon emissions from power plants come from those that run on coal.

According to the Obama White House, the Clean Power Plan will save an average American family nearly $85 on an annual energy bill by 2030, while saving consumers a total of $155 billion from 2020-2030 – and will “create tens of thousands of jobs while ensuring grid reliability.” Officials said the strategy will prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks, and 300,000 missed work and school days.

However, McCawley said West Virginia’s residents are likely to lose while other’s prosper, especially when it comes to probable job losses in both the coal mining and coal burning industries.

“Reducing pollution levels does have a direct impact on health. But, a reduction in jobs, or a reduction in pay scales within jobs, also has a direct impact on health. West Virginia already has bad health and bad economics,” he said.

“This is really a sledgehammer approach by the administration,” McCawley added.

Indeed, the Mountain State’s unemployment rate in June was 7.2 percent, nearly two points higher than the 5.3 percent national average. Largely in response to the Clean Power Plan and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards – which are separate sets of new federal rules – Murray Energy in May eliminated 359 jobs at the Marshall County Mine and 146 jobs from the Ohio County Mine. The firm also laid off 141 miners from the Powhatan No. 6 Mine and 108 from Century Mine.

“Our citizens on fixed incomes will not be able to pay their electric bills, and our manufacturers of products for the global marketplace will not be able to compete,” Murray Chairman, President and CEO Robert Murray said. “We have no choice but to challenge the Obama administration’s illegal actions in court, and we will prevail.”

Howard J. Feldman is the senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute. He joined coal entrepreneur Murray in condemning the Clean Power Plan.

“Meeting climate challenges must go hand-in-hand with ensuring that Americans have the affordable and reliable energy necessary to grow our economy and create jobs. Instead, the EPA rule could impose the greatest costs on those who can least afford it Americans looking for jobs and families that don’t have the means to pay higher monthly bills to heat and cool their homes,” Feldman said.

Xander is also the president of Buckhannon, W.Va.-based Denex Petroleum. He does not believe the Obama administration will rest until it eliminates most fossil fuels from the nation’s energy portfolio.

“This is a dangerous, unnecessary move on the part of a clueless administration with no energy policy,” he added.

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