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Commentary: Students want more transparency on Duke U gas plant

Ariyani Challapalli

Last April, after a year of contentious debate and community outcry, Duke University’s Campus Sustainability Committee (CSC) recommended further analysis and stakeholder engagement on a controversial proposed new gas plant. The university’s lack of transparency in its decision to build the plant was a major cause of concern for student and community groups opposing the plant, in addition to the potential negative impacts of the plant on climate change and community health. Why then, after nearly another year has passed, have community groups still not been included in a transparent review process?

The CSC has been the only formal process that has investigated the plant and its implications. In addition to the recommendation to further engage with stakeholders, the CSC came to two other major conclusions. First, it could not reach consensus on whether to support the plant. Second, it recommended that if the plant proceeds, the plant should be powered by bio-gas, rather than natural gas, which was the originally proposed fuel.

New energy infrastructure and biogas energy are complex issues, and if Duke wants to be an environmental leader, it has the responsibility to carefully analyze both in a transparent way that reflects the concerns of students, faculty, and community groups.

Despite these calls for further analysis, no stakeholder process has taken place to address either the gas plant or the issue of biogas procurement. The lack of community engagement is particularly concerning given Duke’s plans to source biogas from swine farms in eastern North Carolina, which has the potential to further entrench the hog industry and consequently reinforce the pollution that overwhelmingly affects communities of color. If Duke University wants to be involved in developing biogas projects, it must take the time to engage with the communities that will inevitably be affected in a formal decision-making process before the University goes forward with biogas. Once contracts have already been signed and infrastructure is already built, reversal is incredibly difficult, thereby creating the risk that problems will never truly be addressed. Agreeing to listen to concerns after decisions have already been reached would not demonstrate a real desire on the part of the university to be inclusive and transparent.

In addition to the question of biogas, further analysis of the gas plant is also needed. It is imperative to emphasize that the CSC was unable to come to a conclusion on the plant. The University must be honest about that outcome and commit to additional analysis before it decides on any one path. The recommendation that the University not pursue the plant without biogas does not mean that if biogas can be procured, the plant should go forward. Energy efficiency and analysis of how future demand can be reduced could eliminate the need for a new plant, meaning that biogas could be used to offset existing fossil fuel natural gas elsewhere.

On April 10, Duke is hosting a forum to discuss issues related to the plant and biogas. I appreciate the effort the University is making to engage with the campus through this upcoming event. However, it is essential that opinions expressed during the forum are actually incorporated into university decision-making. This effort should be a beginning step in forming the comprehensive, representative analysis that needs to be done separately for both campus energy needs and biogas projects in order to produce the best result for the climate and the community.

It has been two years since the plant was initially announced, and plans have changed because of the persistence of concerned individuals and organizations. But even after these two years, the need for transparency and careful analysis is just as crucial, because if Duke University wants to be an environmental leader, that is exactly what it takes.

Ariyani Challapalli is the President of Duke Climate Coalition, the student group leading action and advocacy on climate-related issues. She will graduate from Duke University in 2020.

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