Penn State Mischaracterizes its Motivations in the West Campus Steam Plant Conversion
The University recently released a statement about a re-evaluation of pipeline routes, which contained this statement about Penn State’s motivations:
“The new pipeline will increase the natural gas supply to Penn State’s West Campus Steam Plant and is essential to the University’s plan to convert the plant from burning coal to burning natural gas. This conversion is part of the University’s overall strategy to have cleaner air and reduced truck traffic in the community and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from its own facilities. [emphasis added] It will also enable Penn State to continue heating campus while meeting recently enacted federal Clean Air Act regulations by the mandated January 2016 compliance date.”
This characterization is deceptive: it suggests that the primary driver to the University’s decision making – it’s “overall strategy” – is to reduce truck traffic, air pollution, and greenhouse emissions. Meeting the EPA mandate is characterized as a secondary goal, almost a side effect. In fact, as Associate Vice President for Physical Plant Ford Stryker explained in his August 1 presentation to the State College Borough Council, the main driver for the University’s energy strategy here is the new EPA regulations. Absent these EPA requirements, the University would not be making this conversion. Truck traffic, air pollution, and greenhouse emissions alone would not have induced the University to propose this transition. In reality, the EPA regulation is the driver; traffic and pollution reductions are the side effect.
Furthermore, the net greenhouse effect of natural gas consumption is ambiguous at best: methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, so even a few percent leakage of methane during gas extraction would completely counteract all the reduced CO2 emissions associated with a conversion of coal to gas. Measuring these gas emissions accurately is challenging, but current assessments suggest that the amount of leakage is substantial. If the University is honest about reducing greenhouse emissions, it would become a strong advocate for the characterization and reduction of methane emissions, and it would delay making any claims about natural gas as a net greenhouse benefit until after the issue of methane leakage is better understood. Absent that knowledge, premature claims of greenhouse advantages suggest an attempt at public relations rather than an honest contribution to the public dialogue on energy security.