John Brooker, Energy Policy Director at Conservation Voters of South Carolina, joined us on Surge Radio on 2/2/24 to talk through Dominion's plans to build a massive new gas facility in Canadys, SC. We walked through the many deep concerns the project raises, from economic risk to environmental damages to climate pollution to environmental injustice, and touched on what folks can do if they oppose the project.
Belvin Olasov: Hello, hello, and welcome to Surge Radio, here on Ohm Radio 96.3 FM. I'm your host, Belvin Olasov, and I'm joined today by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina's Energy Policy Director, John Brooker. How are you, John?
John Brooker: Doing great, thanks for having me, Belvin.
BO: So on today's show, we'll be delving into one of the most pressing environmental issues of this year in the Lowcountry, in South Carolina, a potential new gas plant built by Dominion Energy. We'll be delving into how this gas plant came to be, what can be done about it, the various ins and outs of gas energy, as we have to deal with it here in this state. I'll start off, John, by asking you, what work do you do with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, what’s your main job?
JB: My title is Energy Policy Director for Conservation Voters of South Carolina or CVSC. CVSC, for folks that aren't familiar, CVSC fights for South Carolina's air, land, and water, and energy through political action and advocacy. Our strategy combines education, accountability, and electoral engagement to advance conservation policy in the Palmetto State. We educate, we advocate, and we elect.
BO: And the way I think of y 'all is you're sort of the state level vanguard.
BO: 'Cause they're groups that work locally on environmental issues here in Charleston, and I know as an environmental advocate and activist, what I like to do when there's anything happening in the state house is go to you guys and say “What is going on and what can be done about it?”
JB: Yeah, our bread and butter is just being in touch with what's happening at the State House and how that impacts South Carolina's environment and its people.
BO: So, speaking of impacting South Carolina's environment and its people, I understand there is a very consequential proposal for a major new natural gas plant by Dominion, is that right?
JB: To add a little bit more color here, we're seeing utilities trying to fast-track a really massive plant, they're looking at a 13 to 2000 megawatt facility. This is a natural gas combined cycle power plant in the Canadys, South Carolina, area. Canadys is in Colleton County, just about an hour drive northwest of Charleston, near Walterboro.
JB: This is backed by essentially the same major players that brought us the $9 billion VC Summer nuclear fiasco. That's Santee Cooper, our state-owned utility, and Dominion, who actually bought SCE&G after the VC Summer disaster. And, this project comes with major risks for customers, the environment. and overall we think this is the wrong choice for South Carolina's energy future.
BO: How much gas is already being produced for Dominion? Like how much of Dominion's energy portfolio right now is natural gas?
JB: Dominion has a lot of natural gas especially compared to the other utilities. They’re highly reliant on it and adding this much gas to their system would greatly increase that dependence. You're looking at somewhere in the range of 20 to 30% gas and with the addition here, this brings us up to closer to 50% gas.
BO: Interesting. Why do you think Dominion is pursuing gas this aggressively? What's in for them to be choosing gas as sort of their main hobby horse for energy?
JB: The way that we have to think about this is we have utilities, they're monopolies, and in Dominion's case, they're a private company. And their job is to maximize returns for shareholders. Our job as advocates, and legislators, and regulators of the Public Service Commission, is to ensure that what they're doing with their business benefits the people of South Carolina and is in the interest of the people and the ratepayers of South Carolina, not just the shareholders.
BO: Right, 'cause as a business, they're trying to maximize profits, it’s the natural course of that kind of business.
JB: And that’s understandable. That's what a business is aimed to do and we have to make sure that we just have safeguards against them doing that at the cost of South Carolina ratepayers.
BO: Right, because there's a possibility that what is most economically beneficial for them is not necessarily what is most economically beneficial for folks who are paying energy bills.
BO: Or folks dealing with climate consequences or environmental consequences.
JB: It all comes down to incentives and how those are aligned to either help or hurt ratepayers.
BO: Is it true that Dominion sort of gets a guaranteed return on investment for infrastructure that they build?
JB: Utilities that are regulated, regulated monopolies, which is mostly what we have in the Southeast here, do get a return. This is governed in a large part by the Public Service Commission. This is a return on their investment and they get this off of capital investment, so this is concrete and steel, this is building a gas plant, this is infrastructure.
BO: Right, if they build a pipeline, they're getting paid for building a pipeline.
JB: They get to basically in turn through a process compute the cost that they've put out there and then put that into your bill as a rate payer.
BO: You mentioned the Public Service Commission. There is sort of a semi-arcane workings to our state energy oversight and the Public Service Commission is sort of core to that, right? What is this body, the Public Service Commission?
JB: Yeah, I'm steeped in this every day, so I don't think twice about it. But, not a lot of people know about the Public Service Commission, and they're important decision-makers in our state, especially for energy and really all utility matters, and they govern a lot of different items. The way I like to describe it is they're essentially like the Supreme Court for energy and utility issues in South Carolina. The legislature makes laws and they also elect these commissioners, and they really implement the laws of the state as it pertains to utilities, and specifically here, electrical utilities. They're a quasi-judicial body, which is a funny term, but they're basically judges, it's slightly different. But, they are where a lot of these decisions are made and are a hinge point here. It's between them and the legislators that really determine South Carolina's entire energy future.
BO: Okay. So with the Public Service Commission, I assume they would have had to have approved the gas plant at some point. How'd that sort of come to be that this big gas plan was approved by the PSC?
JB: Luckily, the gas plan has not been fully approved yet. But, there has been a preliminary approval. All the utilities, the larger utilities in South Carolina, submit a plan to the Public Service Commission. It's basically an energy plan, but it covers not just one facility, but 15 years of what they're going to do. And in this, for example Dominion, they have already had approval from the Public Service Commission on their integrated resource plan or this long-term energy plan, and it includes this gas plan. That's kind of a preliminary check on this plant. They're looking to build this plant very soon, and this is kind of the first check on the road to get that fully approved and really get shovels in the ground.
BO: And when that approval came, my understanding is that there is room for the public to speak out and room for environmental groups to be intervenors and sort of challenge.
BO: How did that play out with this gas plant?
JB: That is very good to note. There was a broad group of folks that showed up to the Public Service Commission. And they took time out of their day to go to the Public Service Commission or speak virtually, and we had around 30 people that testified at the public service commission all of which were staunchly against this gas plant.
JB: A lot of these customers, especially Dominion customers have seen price spikes in their bills recently from the cost of natural gas. The utilities don't cover any of the cost of fuel. They pass that a hundred percent on to customers. They don't care if, for a metaphor, you’re buying a Mazda Miata or a Hummer. They don't care how much fuel it takes, we pay for the fuel. You had many people showing up and speaking out saying this is not in our best interest, we don't want this to impact our bills, we don't want this to impact our environment. And essentially we had the Public Service Commission ignore that, you mentioned environmental interveners. I definitely want to shout out the great work of the Coastal Conservation League, Southern Environmental Law Center, maybe Southern Alliance for Clean Energy might have been involved at some point in this as well. But what they do is they essentially challenge the utilities and say, “Hey, we don't think this is the best plan.” And they did this routinely. When this gas plant has come up, not only for Dominion, but also it's come up in Santee Cooper's plans at the Commission, they've said, “Hey, hey, hey, hey, there are cleaner, and there are cheaper options that we should pursue”. And they put forth the engineering, all the details you need to back this up. Essentially, not only with the public, but these environmental interveners with engineering solutions were railroaded by the Public Service Commission and essentially ignored. And it was really upsetting. I mean, I've had people reach out to me and be like, “Hey, this is crazy. They didn't listen to me at all, like why did I even do that?” That is wild.
BO: Right. We have this public process that is ostensibly supposed to give room for the public and for folks who are educated in this process to be able to say like here are all the financial reasons, structural reasons environmental, reasons why there is a better way and it kind of seems like it was just completely put on deaf ears.
JB: Definitely. That's why we're talking about it today. That should have been kind of a check and balance there on utility interests. It's a balance right? You have to make sure that the utilities aren't just put in a corner but you have to make sure the repairs aren't put in the corner and that both sides are respected in these dealings.
BO: Right. Well now we're here. There has been preliminary approval as part of this greater integrated resource plan for this major gas plant to be a part of Dominion and Santee Cooper's energy portfolio going forward. Again it'd be in Canadys, South Carolina, near Walterboro, a little less than an hour away from Charleston. What would be the consequences of this gas plant being built?
JB: I'll start ecologically, we're on Surge Radio hour, that's the name of the program?
BO: We're green, yeah.
JB: Yeah, we'll start there. But, there are many reasons, economic as well, but starting with ecological. The way that we think about it at CVSC is that South Carolina's natural resources are our greatest assets and need to be protected. The big thing with this plan is there's a bunch of undisclosed pieces, and part of that is the environmental risk. We do know that this proposed plant would emit air pollutants, impact water quality, and worsen pollution at its site on the banks of the Edisto River. Also the proposed plant isn't something you just invest in and then it's gone a couple years later. This is a 40-year investment here. These plants are expensive, they're kept around. We have got coal plants in South Carolina that were built in the '70s. This is something that we're not just going to have to live with, but even our children will have to live with
BO: Yeah it's gonna be locked in.
JB: That's a 40 year lifespan and that's gonna really lock South Carolina into significant greenhouse gas emissions and pollution for decades.
BO: I've been doing some reading about methane, and folks have been trying to push natural gas as this green, clean alternative to coal. But everything I read says methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. 70 times or more effective at heat trapping than carbon dioxide. And gas refineries, gas pipelines, fracking, all put out a tremendous amount of methane to the atmosphere, which is warming the earth now and not really like pushing it down the road for 20 or 30 years, but it's like the next couple of years will be hotter because of all this methane going up. And folks think that it's really underreported right now, the amount of methane coming out of natural gas infrastructure. I mean by some counts it’s as destructive for the climate as coal.
JB: Yeah, yeah.
BO: Which is like the classic “Don't do this.”
JB: At the very best, even if you ignore, which you shouldn't, these very potent methane gas emissions it's still half as polluting as coal right? And coal is the low, low, low, bar. We hear utilities talk about natural gas as a clean solution. It's not. Natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel, it's an expensive fossil fuel, the cost is volatile. That's not worth glossing over. And those methane emissions are undisclosed to some degree. There are studies that looked into that. But, like you said, it’s a more potent greenhouse gas and that's leaking at the facility, that's leaking along pipelines, that's leaking at the source where they're fracking the material.
BO: Well, so, I mean, going back to the consequences of this plant, you mentioned economics is one of the concerns?
JB: Really briefly, I wanna make one more point on the ecological side.
JB: This is a power plant, but there's also a pipeline. And this project would require major expansion of natural gas pipelines. And it's likely to have environmental and land use impacts on roughly 100 miles of track.
BO: Do we know where these pipelines would go?
JB: No. And we don't know where these pipelines will go. That's been undisclosed. And that actually brings us to our economic piece because we don't have the cost of the pipeline either. That's one thing is, as we're seeing legislation in Columbia brought up, this is a blank check. We don't know how much the pipeline will be. We don't know where it'll go. It's a blank check for our environment. We don't have all the details of the environmental impacts. We really think all this should be disclosed and none of this should be fast tracked. We should have the details on the table. When it comes to economic risk like I said, this is a major joint project. And for those that are familiar with the VC Summer fiasco, it's very similar, eerily similar from the actors.
BO: Right, and I guess just to quickly recap VC Summer, my recollection is that that was a nuclear plant that was failed to be built, it was not successfully built.
BO: But in the process, it cost, what, nine billion?
JB: Nine billion dollars.
BO: Nine billion dollars just down the drain on an attempt at an energy source.
JB: Not a kilowatt to show for it. We're hoping we learn from that past and see that a joint project, that if it is not completed we don't get a single kilowatt, is not the way to go, and that we should look at more diverse approaches. From an economic angle one thing that we want to make sure people know is that this could have major bill impacts for customers. Because like I said, we had those like nearly 20% increase for Dominion customers on their bills. if you add more gas to the system and make us more gas dependent, your bill could rise even higher. So we had the war in Ukraine and we saw natural gas prices spike through the roof. You're at the mercy of any world event, any natural disaster that can cause these price increases and then that's reflected in our bill. That's for residential customers. commercial and also industrial customers. That's just passed along to us.
BO: Because we'd be importing the gas, right?
JB: Yeah. South Carolina doesn't have coal. We don't extract coal or natural gas in South Carolina. All that's coming from out of state. That's good to keep in mind is that we're paying for this and we're making an investment, but we don't actually know the full cost because all you can do is project costs in the future. But, it's not like you're saying here's what I'm paying and here's what I'm getting. That's not kind of the deal when you invest in a fuel-based resource like natural gas. From an economic perspective as well there's been some news articles and in South Carolina, we all recognize that we do have an urgent need for more energy. This is just because we are trying to bring coal offline. That's a lot of energy. But it's also because South Carolina is growing really fast population wise. We also had 11 billion in new manufacturing investment in the state. A lot of that is actually clean energy and clean transportation, like EVs. But given that the most optimistic in-service-state for this facility is not until 2031, because that pipeline takes a long time to build.
BO: Oh wow.
JB: This plant doesn't really solve urgent energy needs. If we have a large manufacturing customer that wants to come to South Carolina in 2028, 2029, 2030, we might not have energy for them. The reason we bring this up is we've been working closely with legislators in Columbia, and that's a problem they want to address and we just want to make it clear that that's not going to address your issue until 2031.
BO: Right. In theory, maybe you can’t answer this, but in theory if a lot of this means that we're going towards solar power instead. What would be the timeline on starting the construction of that to actually getting energy to people's homes?
JB: We're not environmentalists here just to be obstructionist right? We're trying to just bring up the real issues but it also provides solutions. And the solutions on the table is if you have solar and storage you can actually solve a lot of our energy capacity problems.
BO: And that can be brought on piece by piece so you don't run the same risk of major overruns on this huge multi-billion dollar project.
JB: All of your eggs in one basket.
BO: Exactly. You can actually have a number of projects that address this and, like you said timeline wise, two to three years you can bring these facilities online. It's a lot less risky of an investment if you say we'll have kilowatt hours in the grid after we finish this project and then we can start another one rather than we hope this all pans out or else we're up a creek.
JB: Right. Well, and one thing that I think about is bringing together the climate consequences and the economic issues. Gas is extremely climate polluting and the federal government is increasingly intervening to stop climate pollution through various penalties, through various regulations.
BO: And my mind it’s a little bit like investing big in lead paint right before they ban lead paint. It's sort of putting a big investment in something that will be recognized as destructive to society sometime soon and then be regulated out of viability.
JB: And the part of that is, it's not the utility that's gonna kind of hold the bag in the end there. Let's say, like you said, we have major federal regulations and there actually are some pending that would impact this specific type of plant. We expect to hear about that in March, whether those come down. But if you build this plant anyway and you get hit with these essentially cost penalties, it's gonna be ratepayers that pay that. Ratepayers have already paid for a very similar thing for coal plants that South Carolina has decided to continue to run past some federal deadlines, and we've had to spend millions of dollars upgrading pollution control measures at these coal facilities. So you're going to have the same thing with natural gas facilities. That's a major reason that we should be like, wait a second, we should figure out what's going to happen with these federal regulations. Especially since the big ones from the EPA. are dropping in, like, this March.
BO: Okay, wow.
JB: And I wanted to add one more thing on the business side and economic development side. South Carolina is really interested in bringing in new businesses to the state. We've seen a lot of success. We've seen, like I said, $11 billion of new investment. But corporate sustainability and clean energy goals are really becoming commonplace in the business sector. Name a huge multinational company that doesn't have something of this sort.
BO: Right, they've made commitments.
JB: They've made commitments and some stronger than others. But investing big in fossil fuels really just reduces South Carolina's competitiveness on a world stage in attracting and retaining big businesses. Because we have businesses in the state right now that have strong environmental commitments, that have clean energy commitments. How do you fulfill that if we have a large chunk of our grid run off of fossil fuels and new natural gas?
BO: Right. You're saying that maybe some of these big businesses, when they're looking at which states to move to, that's part of the calculus?
JB: Yeah. We've heard from different big businesses that this matters to them. They're trying to figure out if it's not on the grid, how do we get it otherwise? But really we would all benefit from this clean energy. That's kind of the way that we view it, is we want to green the entire grid, not just try to figure out how to make these kinds of exceptions for large customers.
JB: So, yeah, that's another reason, if we make the grid more dirty, we're walking backwards on helping out these corporate commitments.
BO: Right, and one last thing I want to talk about, regarding this plant, is the environmental justice angle.
BO: Because I did a little research and Canadys, South Carolina, has a three-time higher black population than the state. 38% of folks who live in Canadys are black. One stat that has always stuck out to me is that the rate of childhood asthma among black folks is eight times higher than among white children, and that's often because there are coal plants or gas plants in these communities. And my understanding is that Canadys had coal plants and the gas plant would be built on top of the old coal plant. Is that right?
JB: That's correct. It's no secret that including infrastructure has historically been located and systematically oppressed communities, black and brown communities, low income communities. And you're right, this is a former coal site. This is a community that's already suffered decades of coal pollution. What you're doing is you're just saying, y'all have borne the brunt of fossil fuels for however long that coal plant was open and we're gonna add another 40 years on top of that.
JB: It doesn't look great. Like you said, Colotson County or specifically the Canadys area has a higher black population. Kind of a disproportionate impact there. And also there's another environmental justice impact, but it's about the pipeline. We don't know where that's gonna go. That's gonna have impacts on lands and neighborhoods.
BO: Right. There are folks across the country, in Appalachia, for example, that are fighting tooth and nail against pipelines that go through their communities, through natural resources, maybe eminent domain, and take away homes.
JB: Like I said, a lot of this is just a blank check. We need to know all that before state legislators move and make this very possible. We talked about before
BO: So…the ball is in state legislators court right now as far as approving this?
JB: That's exactly where we're at, like I said we had that kind of a preliminary sort of approval in that IRP, or that long-term energy plan for Dominion. But now, Santee Cooper is actually barred from doing joint projects.They're not allowed to pursue joint projects with private companies currently. That's state law.
BO: Because of VC Summer?
JB: I don't know if it was put in place after VC Summer, but I know that they had to seek an exemption to pursue the VC Summer facility back in 2007, or whenever that was. Right now, what we're from, at the state legislature, is a move to give St. Cooper legislative authorization to pursue this joint project. And that's really the last time it will be in legislators' hands. After that, like I said, it's a blank check. What we really want to tell people is that legislators should think twice about this, rushing headlong into this project. One thing I didn't mention is that there's been some red flags, not just from environmental groups like us, but an independent report, sorry, an independent report commissioned by state regulators questioned the necessity of this proposed large natural gas project, emphasizing that Santee Cooper's basically did not explore cheaper and cleaner alternatives. We really need to tell the legislature that there are better alternatives and they don't want to do this. This is way too similar to what we looked at with VC Summer, and we don't want to spend another $9 billion and not have a mega watch to show for it.
BO: So, right now if you're interested in what's happening in the energy world interested in climate action etc. etc. It seems like potentially reaching out to your legislators is something one could do if one were interested in participating in action. And I can say as someone with the Charleston Climate Coalition our group is looking into what the response can be locally. Because the thought is that Dominion cares about the conversation the main cares about being a part of the community and if a lot of institutions were to say hey don't build this gas plant that would have some sort of effect.
JB: Yeah. They need to serve their customers with what their customers want and contacting state representatives, state senators, calls and emails, and letting them know. I'd say people often overlook the state legislature. People kind of get focused on national politics but they're making these big decisions that will impact us that'll impact our bills, that'll impact our environment. Shameless plug here, go to CVSC.org you can sign up for our email list if you don't want to do that you can just we have a part of our site where you can just find your state legislator by putting in your address. That's a great way to do it. You can stay up with developments from our email list there will be the legislature's piece on this and then there should be a Public Service Commission process with the public hearing from what we're learning up in Columbia. Legislators, or sorry utilities, are looking to potentially short-circuit that. We need to make sure that public input is valued and is taken into account here.
BO :Okay. Power to the people. You're heard it here first.
JB: Thanks, Belvin.
BO: Thanks so much, John. Is there anything else you want to share before we hop off and end this search radio session?
JB: No. Happy to be on listener-powered radio. And thanks for having me, Belvin. And thanks for having me, Ohm.
BO: Of course. You are listening to Ohm Radio 96 .3 FM. And this has been an installment of Surge Radio, your number one source for Lowcountry, climate and environmental news and actions. We come out once a month, so stay tuned for next month's Surge Radio Hour. Digging into various issues. In the past, we've dug into the King Street bike lane, we've dug into county tree protections. In the future, we'll be talking about 526. So all sorts of issues that you can hear more about here on Surge. I hope you enjoy the rest of your Friday, folks.