The current pandemic serves as a cautionary tale warning us that the laws of the natural world supersede the laws and desires of human beings; that we exist ultimately at their mercy. We cannot bend math and physics to our will.
Human beings need clean air to breathe, specifically oxygen from earth’s natural ventilator. People afflicted by COVID-19 need it even more desperately. Downstate New York is currently the epicenter of the global pandemic.
Indian Point (IP) produces over 2000 Megawatts or about 16,300 megawatt-hours of power generation annually which accounts for 80 percent of downstate New York’s carbon-free (hence pollution-free) energy today. If it starts shutting down on April 30th, as planned, it will be replaced by fracked gas, emitting 10-15 million tons of carbon annually; thus increasing our entire state’s greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 27-29 percent. Pollution will increase substantially and more people will die.
The coronavirus crisis, however, may well be just a prequel to the story of humanity’s ultimate self-afflicted fatal wound, climate change; a catastrophe that will surpass the pandemic by orders of magnitude.
But unlike this crisis, we’ve known and understood the cause of climate change for decades. We’ve also known for decades what we need to do to prevent apocalyptic scenarios. We must reduce carbon in the atmosphere. We also know how to do that; by ending our use of fossil fuels. As many track tragic COVID mortalities daily, they may want to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of lives lost yearly to climate change, or what mass species extinction might look like.
So it’s puzzling that Riverkeeper continues to advocate for closing Indian Point, which will exacerbate this looming existential threat. As Riverkeeper floats on their opaque river of misinformation about New York’s energy policy, while opining about the most remote and speculative risks, they drive us ever closer to carbon thresholds that assure we land at a destination inhospitable to life as we know it. It’s time for a mutiny on this ship.
Governor Cuomo recently said it best “there’s a difference between opinions and facts” and people “now need facts” Indeed, facts are the best antidote to irrational fear and anxiety. Moreover, Cuomo’s handling of the current crisis demonstrates deference for science and data-driven policy; an ideal model to follow in this issue as well. So here are facts, data, and science.
Riverkeeper is correct that “Our energy transition is already underway.” Three new gas plants were just built to serve as replacement for IP; CPV Valley Plant in Orange County, The Cricket Valley Plant in Dutchess County, and the Bayonne Energy Center in New Jersey. These projects received funding and approval based on their need to replace Indian Point. Finally, NYISO, the New York Independent Systems Operator, has also identified these three plants as Indian Point’s replacement. We are certainly transitioning, but out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire, ensuring fracked-gas dependency for generations to come.
Fracked “natural” gas is mostly methane which has 86 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a twenty-year time-frame. A new analysis by the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, finds methane levels at an all-time high at 1875 parts per a billion, the highest levels since record-keeping began in 1983. Most alarming, however, is that last year saw the single biggest increase in two decades. This accelerating rise in greenhouse gases is a fact that is now keeping climate scientists up at night.
It is wonderful that renewable energy and energy efficiency has been added in New York State, but where in New York State? The downstate market is separate and there is no transmission infrastructure to bring upstate power downstate. Moreover that energy is not only a fraction of Indian Point’s power, but also already being used and accounted for somewhere else. Finally, if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions shouldn’t any renewable energy we have now, tomorrow, or in the future be used to displace fossil fuels first.
Burning fossil fuels also generates other harmful pollutants in the form of particulate matter. Fine particulates—especially those with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5)—are particularly dangerous to the human body because they deplete lung capacity, and can pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. A new Harvard Study just released shows that long-term exposure to even a slight increase in pollution of just 1 microgram per a cubic meter of PM 2.5 increases COVID mortality in a population by 15 percent. These results aren’t surprising. We know that comorbidities for COVID, such as hypertension, heart disease, & respiratory illness, are also associated with exposure to air pollution.
52,000 people die prematurely every year in the United States from exposure to air pollution from power generation. Communities surrounding the new and existing gas plants are not comforted by the claim that the state plans to eventually build renewable power by 2024 and 2025. How many unnecessary deaths will occur in the next 4 to 5 years? Another new study from Italy finds that pollution may actually carry and spread the virus. How many more deaths will occur in the next weeks and months as the pandemic becomes compounded by the substantial added pollution? These impacted communities include demographics already disproportionately impacted by COVID; environmental justice communities and first responders. Is it responsible or just to sacrifice these communities rather than simply keep Indian Point open a little longer?
Opponents of Indian Point would fear-monger over statistically non-existent risks than address the known and imminent harms that will result from its closure. While they scrutinize the plant with a microscope lens, finding nothing but issues common to all industrial facilities, no one meaningfully regulates or monitors the fracked gas replacement plants. CPV is currently operating without a valid Title V air permit. Nor is any state or federal agency regulating the documented radiation emitted from the fracking enterprise that results in widespread air, water, and soil contamination.
Other claims are just false. Indian point does not lie on an earthquake fault line. The Ramapo Fault zone is actually a mile from the plant, which was built to withstand an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude. The U.S. Geological Survey found the risk of damage to a reactor at 1 in 106,000 years.
Finally if the high pressure gas pipeline is dangerous, then the state could and should shut down that pipeline. It is bewildering that the pipeline received any state approvals whatsoever without a comprehensive risk assessment. Shutting down Indian Point just increases the amount of gas flowing through that pipeline, as downstream gas power plants also pick up the load from IP’s loss.
The inconvenient truth is that the math of the anti-Indian Point interests simply doesn’t add up. New York City is the second largest consumer of power in the world. It requires reliable baseload power rain or shine, when the wind blows or when it doesn’t. The 1700 MW wind farm planned for Long Island will primarily serve Long Island. Moreover after multiplying by the capacity factor for off-shore wind the real available power is less than half that amount.
Unfortunately shutting down Indian Point without building equivalent reliable renewable power is a catastrophic case of putting the cart before the horse, ensuring carbon lock-down for decades to come; time we simply don’t have to act on climate.
Pramilla Malick chairs Protect Orange County. Jim Hansen is the director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.