Our Voice: Halting natural gas study wastes time and money

The Department of Energy’s decision to shelve an environmental study exploring whether natural gas should replace diesel fuel at Hanford’s vitrification plant is like a distance runner who sees the finish line and then decides to take a break from the race.

It does not make sense to be so close to the end and halt what, according to TRIDEC officials, is a document ready to be released to the public. Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Industrial Council, said the study is practically done and a draft prepared at Hanford was forwarded to DOE officials in Washington, D.C., about a year ago.

An estimated $6 million has been spent on the study so far, and DOE officials anticipated it would show a significant savings if natural gas is used instead of diesel — somewhere in the neighborhood of $527 million to $823 million, depending on the price of the fuel.

DOE officials have said it is committed to completing the analysis later, but priorities and schedules have changed and the project is being put off. But loose ends have a tendency to unravel, and halting the study now creates the potential for the $6 million that has been spent so far to be completely squandered. The likelihood that circumstances will change significantly by the time DOE decides to pick up where it left off, frankly, is huge.

Cascade Natural Gas, which would own, build and operate and maintain the pipeline, spent an incredible amount of time and money doing its part to prepare the analysis for the project and if the study is shelved, it is a sure bet all that effort has just been wasted.

It would be better to spend the money now to completely finish the study, even if final decisions to proceed could not happen right away. At least there would be a more solid place to launch from than an unfinished environmental impact study.

DOE officials told TRIDEC it would cost an additional $3 million to restart the study in three to five years. That has to be more in the long-run than what would be spent finishing up the document now and then receiving public comments.

In addition to the financial benefit of switching from diesel fuel to natural gas, the estimate is that greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by about 1 million tons and there would not be the need for 42 truckloads per week of diesel being delivered to Hanford.

With the cost savings of switching to natural gas, TRIDEC officials estimate there could be enough money for other power source projects like small modular reactors. More power is needed at the site and TRIDEC already commissioned a study that found installing a small reactor at Hanford could save millions of dollars and also eliminate greenhouse gases.

It is a shame the study has to be put on hold when so much good could have come from it. The finish line was in sight.