Ask a Scientist: Gas Power Plants Disproportionately Harm Marginalized Communities

February 9, 2024 | 10:08 am
Cholla powerplant in Arizona.Alan Stark/Wikimedia Commons
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Just how bad is fossil “natural” gas?

Its primary component is methane. Responsible for 12 percent of all US global warming emissions from human activities, methane traps significantly more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide, making it 86 times more harmful for the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere. And, as it turns out, the infrastructure used to produce, store, distribute, transmit, and burn gas leaks like a sieve, making gas as bad as coal for the climate.

Gas, which now generates 40 percent of US electricity, is considered by some to be critical to maintain grid reliability. But in fact, gas power plants are unreliable in extreme temperatures, which—thanks to climate change—have been occurring more frequently. They accounted for most of the failed generating capacity in a number of recent extreme weather events, including Winter Storm Uri in 2021 and Winter Storm Elliott in 2022, according to Gas Malfunction, a new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issue brief.

The plants failed “disproportionately in comparison with gas’s percentage of total installed capacity,” UCS found, “indicating that they are more susceptible to extreme winter weather than … other resource types.” Likewise, severe summer temperatures undermine gas plant reliability by reducing their “efficiency and maximum generating capacity,” according to the report, and droughts can force plants that depend on water for cooling to cut output or completely shut down.

Last but not least, gas power plants and related infrastructure threaten the health and well-being of the residents of the communities where they are located.

Vivian Yang, Western states energy analyst for the UCS Climate and Energy program, recently took a close look at how the nearly 2,000 gas power plants and 2 million miles of gas pipelines across the country are particularly harmful to people of color and residents of low-income neighborhoods. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: US infrastructure planning has a long history of discrimination. Federal highway plans routed freeways through low-income neighborhoods, cutting them off and hemming them in. Municipal zoning laws, meanwhile, allowed companies to build power plants and other industrial facilities in those same neighborhoods. You have pointed out just how prevalent these inequities are and that “industrial-based discrimination” is alive and well today. Disadvantaged folks are still stuck in fenceline communities.

VY: There are numerous studies documenting that polluting infrastructure is disproportionately sited in communities of color and low-income communities.  

In New England, for example, the percentage of people of color that live within 6 miles of a power plant is as much as 23.5 percent higher than the percent of the white residents in the area, and the percentage of people living in poverty that live within 5 miles of a power plant is as much as 15.3 percent higher than the number of wealthier residents, according to a 2022 UCS study. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a 2017 PSE Healthy Energy study found that nearly half of California’s gas power plants are in communities that are among the state’s 25 percent most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

As you said, there’s a legacy of racism when it comes to siting polluting infrastructure. Likewise, housing discrimination has forced poorer folks and racial and ethnic minorities to live in areas with polluting infrastructure. That discrimination is still evident today. For example, Dominion Energy, an electric and gas utility in Virginia, is planning to build a mammoth 1,000-megawatt gas plant in an area with a high percentage of residents who are people of color and low-income. It’s a community that is already burdened by significant industrial pollution.

EN: I mentioned in my introduction the threat gas emissions pose to the climate. Fossil gas also threatens public health and the environment, particularly in urban and rural fenceline communities.

VY: That’s right. Gas plants and their associated infrastructure, including pipelines, production wells, and compressor stations, have had an extremely harmful impact on public health and the environment.

First, there’s air pollution. Gas plants and infrastructure emit nitrogen oxides (NOx) during combustion, which degrade local air quality. Exposure to NOx and other gas infrastructure air pollutants has been associated with respiratory illnesses and an increase in childhood asthma rates.

Then there’s water contamination. Producing, transporting and burning gas despoil waterways, compromising wildlife ecosystems and drinking water supplies. In some cases this contamination has led to higher-risk pregnancies and pre-term births.

Finally, gas infrastructure has serious land impacts, including destroyed wildlife habitat and tribal cultural sites. For farmers, gas pipeline construction degrades soil quality, which reduces crop yields.

There’s a plethora of research on these links and it’s pretty distressing, especially when you consider the inequitable burdens. We know this infrastructure is disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income communities, which means they bear the brunt of these harmful air, water, and land impacts.

Policymakers have generally overlooked these environmental and public health threats when making plans to modernize the electrical grid. Besides addressing grid reliability, grid planners need to factor them in when considering what energy sources should be used to power the grid.

EN: Besides the fact that state and federal officials largely ignore the harm gas does to public health, the environment and the climate, government policies let gas developers off the hook for cleaning up their pollution.

VY: They do. The oil and gas industry has not only been receiving billions of dollars in annual federal tax breaks and subsidies in today’s dollars for more than 100 years, but gas developers also are exempt from key provisions of seven major environmental laws that protect air and water from toxic chemicals. Permitting them to violate these critical regulations means taxpayers have to shoulder the cost of monitoring, remediation, and cleanup, if they happen at all.

But the gas industry must be held accountable for its role in undermining grid reliability as well as its role in harming public health and the environment. During the winter storms cited in UCS’s Gas Malfunction brief, gas system failures led to fuel shortages at many gas plants, forcing them to reduce their electricity output or shut down entirely. One of the report’s recommendations is to increase regulatory oversight of the gas system, especially as it relates to extreme weather risks.

EN: What needs to be done to make the electric grid more equitable—and reliable?

VY: Clean energy sources will be absolutely pivotal for an equitable and reliable grid. There’s a wide range of solutions, including integrating solar, wind and other renewable technologies; investing in new transmission; and reducing demand with efficiency measures. Altogether, they will play the biggest role by far in the future grid and meet most of its reliability needs at the same time. And, perhaps most important, adding more clean energy sources will dramatically reduce the impacts from developing, transporting, and burning fossil fuels.

How can we make sure the decisionmaking process for a clean grid transition is equitable? There’s a lot to unpack here, but—put simply—any decisionmaking process must involve all stakeholders, be accountable to the public, and help the communities that have been most harmed by the current power system.

A primary example is respecting tribal sovereignty when considering where to site clean energy infrastructure. It will be crucial to consult with tribes early and often about any decision regarding such infrastructure projects.

Increasingly we’re seeing stronger examples of “community benefits agreements” between developers and affected communities that can establish workforce development programs, guarantee jobs for local residents, and provide funds for local governments. These agreements can ensure that the benefits of clean energy solutions are distributed more fairly, especially in rural areas, where much of the larger infrastructure will be built.

Another major factor will be the role of demand-side solutions, such as energy efficiency programs and flexibility in the timing of consumer electricity use. These remedies can accelerate fossil fuel plant retirements, reduce the amount of land needed for clean energy infrastructure, avoid ecosystem damage, and allay community concerns. Meanwhile, “distributed” clean energy solutions, such as microgrids and community solar projects, can strengthen grid resilience, and reduce local ratepayers’ electricity bills.

As the country transitions to a clean power grid, the issue of equity must be a fundamental part of the design and decisionmaking process. An equitable grid and a reliable grid must be one in the same, and it must be built on a foundation of clean energy.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: clean energy, EPA

About the author

More from Elliott

Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.