LETTER: ‘Burien must have a transparent discussion about the Tacoma LNG plant’

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, written by a Reader. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The B-Town Blog nor its staff:]

To all residents of Burien,

The city of Burien must have a transparent discussion about the Tacoma LNG plant. Our concerns with the Tacoma *Clean* LNG plant cover three broad categories: economic, environmental, and legal. Although a detailed breakdown of the issues is beyond the scope of this piece we will try to shed light on environmental and economic issues that apply to Burien directly. After reading this piece, we urge residents to contact PSE and the city council and urge a debate that brings transparency to this important issue.

To start, it’s helpful to know what LNG is. The L is for liquid, and the NG is for natural gas. Natural gas is over 95% methane, so liquid natural gas is really liquid methane – a liquid that boils at -258*F. Let’s put this temperature in perspective: on the coldest day of the year at the South Pole – say -60*F – an open vessel of LNG would boil vigorously until all liquid has evaporated to an odorless gas.

Economic concerns

  • PSE ratepayers are on the hook for 43% of plant costs
  • Ratepayers are expected to receive less than 7% of the benefits of the plant
  • There are more productive uses for this money.

Burien ratepayers will absorb a direct increase in their heating bill as a result of Tacoma *Clean* LNG. PSE has structured its various corporations to pass on 43% of plant construction costs directly to ratepayers. The estimated cost of the plant is $310 million (up from $275 million in 2014), so that’s $133 million coming from the pocketbooks of 790,000 ratepayers.

Let’s unpack this to see how it affects Burien. 790,000 ratepayers will pay, on the average, $168 to cover the cost of the plant. If we estimate that 1 in 5 residents of Burien pays PSE to heat their home or business, that comes out to about 10,100 ratepayers. Multiply by $168/ratepayer and that’s $1.7 million pulled out of the local economy. That is money not being spent at McLendon Hardware, Fred Meyer, and other home improvement stores and independent contractors in the area. This scenario plays out again and again across South King County cities.

What do ratepayers get in return for the $133 million?. The Hay Report (available at toddhay.com/lng) indicates that 7% of the plant’s capacity may go to benefit ratepayers. 7% and that’s it! Why are ratepayers asked to fork over 43% of the cost while receiving only 7% of the benefit? We are not aware of PSE ever providing a sufficient explanation. So as a first step we demand that PSE produce analysis or studies showing ratepayers will benefit commensurate with their contribution.

Could the $1.7 million be put to more productive use? Without question. Public policy can and should incentivize private investment in weatherization, solar panels, and other conservation methods that reduce building energy consumption. These investments will pay for themselves in a matter of years and save residents millions in the long run. They will also create good family-wage jobs, many more than the estimated 130 long-term jobs PSE claims the plant will create.

And what is more than a little frustrating is that PSE is already charged with exactly this responsibility: the Seventh Power Plan, which issues guidelines that PSE is obligated to follow by law, has stressed for years that conservation is the number one energy resource available to the Pacific Northwest. PSE has a responsibility to develop that resource and in our view they are not nearly aggressive enough in doing so.

Environmental Concerns

  • The plant is susceptible to tsunami and sea level rise
  • If there is a toxic spill, will it make it’s way north to Burien’s shoreline?
  • Methane leaks cause significant GHG emissions and pipelines are the biggest culprit.

The plant has serious environmental concerns beginning with its physical location. It is very important to understand that Tacoma *Clean* LNG is situated mere feet above sea level. The company has conducted extensive hazard analysis as is required by law, but its findings seem at odds with research conducted by federal and state agencies. The Hay report summarizes the findings of two researchers who wrote in the late 2000s that in the event of a tsunami, “the LNG facility location could be inundated by 2 meters of water.”

Should such a catastrophe occur, would Burien shorelines be impacted? There are about 30 miles of shoreline between Seahurst Park and the LNG plant…but we must never lose sight of what Puget Sound is: It is basically a little saltwater lake.

In gathering facts for this piece, we were astonished to learn that the volume of Puget Sound is less than 1/4 the volume of Lake Eerie – the smallest of the Great Lakes. And the tides. The tides force enough water in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca that they could drain Puget Sound and refill it every six years. With that much discharge and recharge the surface waters are in constant circulation. We can observe this circulation in a healthy way: beautiful tree trunks of all sizes and shapes wash up on our shorelines all the time.

Circulating waters do not discriminate. Very near the location of the plant in Tacoma is a Superfund site. We have another Superfund site in our back yard – the Duwamish. So we raise the question: Should spillage, contaminants, and other pollution enter the Puget Sound as a result of a catastrophic tsunami hitting Tacoma LNG, how far north are the impacts likely to be felt? PSE must address this concern so all residents have the necessary facts.

In addition to the physical site, there is a more pervasive problem with natural gas. Recall that natural gas is a type of fossil fuel which is extracted by drilling a deep well and topping it off with a wellhead. The natural gas is then collected at the wellhead and sent to a compressor station where it is pressurized (usually in multiple stages) before being injected into pipelines. To feed ratepayers and the Tacoma plant, PSE pipelines run hundreds of miles before they reach King County. This arrangement is not uncommon – it plays out again and again across the country.

These pipelines are important because no engineered system is perfect, therefore some amount of gas will leak in transport. There is a great deal of debate amongst industry, regulatory, and environmental groups whether the leakage rate is closer to 0.5% or 5%, and that debate is far from settled but one thing is known: a lot rides on the extent of these fugitive emissions. Why? One word: methane. Like its better-known hydrocarbon CO2, methane is also a greenhouse gas (GHG).

In fact, it is a far more dangerous GHG than CO2. A ton of methane leaking along the pipeline route is as dangerous over a 100 year span as 28 tons of CO2 released by burning the methane for fuel as intended. If the extraction, pipeline, and cooling systems cumulatively leak more than about 3%, the natural gas energy chain produces as much GHG emissions as would the dirtier liquid fuels being replaced.

How does Tacoma LNG contribute to this pervasive methane leaks problem? Simple. It increases the demand for the natural gas which increases the amount of fugitive methane emissions from pipelines. And we know from experience that PSE has a less-than-stellar record at pipeline maintenance.

And now it’s helpful to ask one more question: What’s behind the nationwide natural gas construction boom? A fairly complex question to answer, but in no small measure the boom is driven by the “low cost” of the extracted, typically fracked, fossil fuel. However, with the price of renewables coming down, and wind energy in many places less expensive than ANY fossil fuel alternative, will natural gas (in any form) remain competitive over the lifetime of the plant? Hard to say, but two things are clear:

  1. If gas plants built today become stranded assets tomorrow, ratepayers are likely to bear a disproportionate amount of that risk.
  2. Public policy will play a large role in the country’s and King County’s energy future. One need only compare the energy industries in Germany and Japan – two industrial and wealth economies – and their very different responses to the partial meltdown of a nuclear plant in Japan in 2011. A full analysis is beyond the scope here, but while Japan is doubling down on fossil fuel to replace its nuclear plants, Germany is committed to developing renewable resources to replace both its nuclear AND its fossil fuel plants.

Our position on these issues and questions is clear. No to the Tacoma “Clean” LNG plant because Burien can’t afford it. We encourage residents to demand that PSE produce results demonstrating that ratepayers are getting 100% of the benefit they are asked to pay. And please contact the city council and urge a debate on this issue. It’s time to bring transparency to this plant and the process used to construct it.

Contributors, alphabetical by last name:

  • Irene Danysh is a college teacher and non-profit manager. Her family has resided in Hurstwood by Seahurst Park for 45 years and she jogs daily on the shoreline there.
  • Paul Gould lives in Gregory Heights – Moved here 5 years ago from West Seattle. He is a Retired Boeing computer nerd, traveling and trying to figure out how best to help save the planet from a climate catastrophe.
  • Steven Hofer has lived in Boulevard Park for eight years and enjoys after-work hikes in Seahurst Park. He currently works as a full-time engineer in Kent.
  • Dan Streiffert is Conservation Chair and Newsletter Editor for Rainier Audubon Society, serving South King County.

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