Could feds pave way for new Mass. gas project?

Buzz builds on FERC priorities under Trump

 Environmental activists who oppose the construction of new natural gas pipeline capacity in New England are watching what’s going on at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington with growing concern. 

The federal agency last week overruled a decision by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation denying a water quality permit for the construction of a connection between an existing pipeline and a natural gas plant currently in development.  

FERC’s decision was based on a technicality – that the New York agency had failed to act within an allotted one-year time frame and thus had waived its authority. Two other pipeline companies have indicated they will go to FERC seeking similar rulings for their projects. 

While the FERC decision seems fairly narrow in scope, industry officials and environmental activists both say the ruling is a strong signal that the federal agency under President Trump is willing to take a more activist role in state pipeline battles. That could become important in New England as the region debates whether more pipeline capacity is needed to keep the lights on during the winter months. 

New England’s dependence on natural gas is growing. A report released last week by the regional grid operator, ISO-New England, said natural gas-fired power plants represented 44.5 percent of the region’s electricity-generating capacity in 2016, a percentage expected to grow to 56 percent over the next decade. The report also said inadequate pipeline capacity in the region raises reliability concerns that are “particularly critical” during peak winter demand conditions when prices rise and some natural gas plants find it difficult to obtain fuel. 

For several years now, the region has been debating what to do about the pipeline situation, which has been subsumed to some degree within the broader debate about climate change. Nowhere has the debate been more intense than in Massachusetts, the largest consumer of electricity in the six-state region. 

Last August, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected a Baker administration initiative to tap electric ratepayers for the money to finance additional gas pipeline capacity. The court held that existing state law didn’t allow such a financing arrangement, and gaining legislative approval for the approach is considered unlikely, largely because the state Senate during the last session voted unanimously to oppose such a move. 

The pipeline debate has faded from the headlines, but it hasn’t disappeared. ISO-New England is working on a “fuel security study” due out next month that will assess whether the region can keep the lights on without new pipeline capacity. Given the ISO’s past pronouncements, the betting is that the grid operator will say the region needs another natural gas pipeline. 

Still, the politics haven’t changed. Many of the New England states favor adding more pipeline capacity, but Massachusetts remains a holdout.  

Environmental advocates say they are worried that ISO-New England may use its fuel security study to push for a region-wide tariff on electric ratepayers to pay for the additional pipeline capacity. Just as the ISO makes the case for transmission projects needed to keep the grid operating smoothly, it could argue that more pipeline capacity is needed to keep natural gas-fired power plants running during the winter months. 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

FERC under former president Obama would have been reluctant to bless what is basically a way to sidestep Massachusetts opposition, but Trump’s new appointees to the agency, as they demonstrated last week, may feel the region’s energy needs are a higher priority. 

Kathryn Eiseman, director of the Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network and an opponent of new pipelines, said she is monitoring the agency’s actions closely. “FERC often breaks the law and allows pipelines to be built before anyone can get into court to prove that the agency has abused its power,” she said. 

 

  • QuincyQuarry.com

    Developing – or not – new gas supply pipeline capacity has reached a most curious point.

    Delay game oppositions and other concerns have all but officially reduced the various new pipeline proposals down to Spectra’s Atlantic Bridge proposal.

    Given pending increases in gas supply needs, this – in turn – all but assures that Spectras will surely press to see its all but only game in town application approved by the feds given essentially their all but overawing interstate commerce and other related oversight authorities.

    In turn, the lesson of the day to local opponents of new gas lines: be careful what you wish for.

  • B.E.A.T.

    Natural gas use has NOT gone up in New England. This projected rise is unlikely to happen if ISO-New England doesn’t put their finger on the proverbial scale yet again. We have off-shore wind, storage, and solar coming on line – all of which diversify our electric generation and do not rely on a distant fuel supply whose costs can skyrocket and that can be interrupted in the coldest days of winter.

    In addition, the New England state have greenhouse gas emission statutory goals that cannot be met without reducing the use of natural gas. There is no place for more natural gas in New England.

  • NortheasternEE

    Australia went on a forced march to a clean energy future, and ended up with an unstable grid with skyrocketing rates.

    http://www.heraldsun.com.au/blogs/andrew-bolt/three-ways-we-were-conned-into-destroying-our-electricity-system/news-story/07277c4f228ac0cfe33690a90926546a

    Beacon Hill has us following in Australia’s footsteps. Common sense tells us that we cannot depend on wind and solar to keep the lights on. If we force coal and nuclear out of business, we will need more gas and oil. Grid scale storage does not exist. It’s not even on the drawing board.

    Tell Beacon Hill to stop. We cannot do without nuclear and coal yet.