Up for Debate: Duke’s Natural Gas Plant Proposal

Impatience drove me to go to grad school, a purchase that will empty my entire life’s worth of savings. Why? Because the world’s warming climate won’t wait for us to become billionaires before we help solve our global warming crisis.

As an institution, Duke University has also made a commitment to our environment by pledging to become climate neutral by 2024. However, there has been recent contention about the university’s partnership with Duke Energy in a proposal to build a combined heat and power (CHP) plant on campus grounds.

This proposed plant will run on natural gas, a fuel that has been in national headlines over methane leaks in drinking water and other public health concerns. Some claim that Duke University’s partnership with Duke Energy will compromise its reputation as a burgeoning climate leader by building a plant dependent on a fossil fuel with known environmental hazards.


Natural Gas and its offspring

Natural gas is a hydrocarbon, which means it is a substance that has a chemical combination of carbon and hydrogen atoms. This chemical characteristic places natural gas in the same fuel family as conventional fossil fuels, oil and petroleum. Natural gas can be thought of as an umbrella term. Those who are concerned with the CHP proposal are specifically worried about one particular category: shale gas.

Although the language of the proposal does not pinpoint the fuel source as shale gas, this does not mean that the plant will not run on it. One of the major issues brought up by dissenting parties is that the NDA between Duke Energy and Duke University does limit what can and cannot be publicly shared within the school and the North Carolina community at large.


Why is shale gas controversial?

The method with which we extract gas from shale formations, hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, has been a wellspring of public controversy. In order to break apart the rock containing the gas, we inject 2 to 6 million gallons of highly pressurized water per well. Extractors add in sand and chemical additives to that water to create a proprietary blend of fracking fluids. This blend helps produce a better flow of the gas to the surface. Environmentalists and other stakeholders raises two important questions surrounding this method:

  1. What are we doing with the wastewater? It is not a guarantee that wastewater treatment facilities can handle this volume of water. It is also up to the discretion of the company to disclose what kind of chemical additives that they have placed in the water they used in their fracking fluid. This can contaminate surface water and groundwater during the transportation process.

Some drill sites inject their wastewater underground. There is evidence to suggest that this method increases seismicity (the frequency of earthquakes) in certain geological regions, such as Oklahoma. There are other fracking areas of the country where the same disposal method is used and there has been no increase in seismic activity.

2. Methane leaks – Methane is a naturally occurring gas that occasionally leaks from drilling sites. Methane is about four times as potent as a greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide. It can also contaminate surface water and pollute our air.  


What are the benefits of natural gas?

Natural gas has been an economic boon for the United States in recent years. You may have heard of natural gas for the first time around 2010 when the United States actively began producing more natural gas, an era we have commonly started referring to as the “Shale Gas Revolution.” Shale gas is a type of natural gas that is found in shale rock formations. For all of us non-geologists, we can understand shale as a type of rock that is nonporous and very difficult to extract from up until recently.

Since the price of oil has gone down and the price of natural gas has gone up, it had become economically attractive for companies to begin to develop and use technologies that previously would have been too expensive to use. The period has led to job creation in struggling areas across the nation.

Additionally, the use of natural gas is the best current alternative to dirtier, less efficient fossil fuels like coal and conventional oil. Our current energy landscape cannot be discussed without including natural gas.


What’s being talked about on campus?

In the midst of negotiations between Duke Energy, Duke University, and the North Carolina public agencies that must be on board for the deal to go through, student advocacy groups such as Duke Climate Coalition (DCC), and a handful of academic professionals have led the charge against this plant.

As a response to the growing number of individuals who are just now finding out about the proposal, Duke’s Energy Initiative will be hosting a forum on October 25th at 4:30 pm. The conversation will most likely address some of the tension between the administration and student groups on issues regarding implementation, alternatives to the proposal, and environmental costs and benefits.

The university’s environmental legacy will continue to unfold, beyond the timeline of this project. What happens during the upcoming negotiations will help shape what this legacy looks like and if Duke will make the right bets, both economically and environmentally.

For any questions and comments, please email me at soli.shin@duke.edu.