Weymouth gas project gets final state OK

More legal challenges are planned against compressor station

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

A CONTROVERSIAL NATURAL GAS PROJECT planned for a densely populated waterfront area cleared the final major permitting hurdle Tuesday, further riling opponents who had hoped state regulators would reverse course.

After delaying its review process for more than two years, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal and Zone Management announced Tuesday that the Weymouth compressor station and permits previously awarded by other state agencies for the project are “consistent with the policies of the Commonwealth’s federally approved coastal management program,” Energy and Environmental Affairs spokesperson Katie Gronendyke said in a statement.

The decision concludes the state’s environmental permitting process with all necessary approvals granted. Local groups have already filed legal appeals and will likely do so with the latest ruling as well.

Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican, told the News Service that CZM’s announcement is a “significant blow,” particularly in the wake of a WBUR report that utility companies Eversource and National Grid see the additional fuel capacity from the compressor — planned as part of the Atlantic Bridge pipeline stretching through New England into Canada — as unnecessary to meet customer demand.

“In most other businesses that are not the energy industry, I think that would be enough to say, ‘alright, well, if the two major suppliers of this project don’t need it, we probably shouldn’t waste our money or our infrastructure,'” O’Connor said. “This shines an even brighter light that this is not for consumption in Massachusetts.”

O’Connor said opponents, which include community groups, most of the Massachusetts Senate, and a portion of the congressional delegation, will appeal CZM’s decision, but have not yet determined whether the challenge goes to the Department of Commerce or directly to court.

Petitioners previously filed a lawsuit contesting the Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to uphold an air-quality permit after a rocky appeals process.

“While this appears to be a blow to all those opposing this project — including the Towns of Weymouth, Braintree, and Hingham and the City of Quincy — we will not allow this siting to go forward,” Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station Executive Director Alice Arena said in a statement. “We will continue to fight this ill-conceived scheme by all means available and necessary. That the contracts for this gas are falling by the wayside on a daily basis tells CZM, DEP, and Governor Baker that this compressor station will be nothing more than a stranded asset for which the ratepayers will be held responsible.”

O’Connor also said he believes those frustrated by the project need to “restrategize” and take the fight back to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which already approved the project plan.

“Generally speaking, there’s just so many question marks when it comes to this project in particular that we have to send this fight back to the federal government,” O’Connor said. “We need our allies in Congress to get out and at least get us in front of FERC to make our case.”

The project has been controversial since it was proposed. Environmental activists warn that its operations run counter to the state’s emissions reduction goals, and residents in the area — which has faced pollution from industrial sites for decades — have expressed fears about potential health impacts.

Energy giant Enbridge, which is seeking to build the facility, defended its plans, describing the station as an important piece of infrastructure to meet the region’s energy needs.

“The proposed Weymouth compressor station is required to help us serve the needs of the Atlantic Bridge project customers located generally north of Weymouth, including local gas utilities in Maine and Atlantic Canada,” Enbridge spokesperson Max Bergeron said in a Tuesday email. “In certain cases, greater access to natural gas helps replace more carbon-intensive and more expensive sources of energy, helping consumers realize environmental benefits and cost savings.”

Bergeron said the company was “pleased” with CZM’s decision.

Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund wrote to CZM last week asking for additional review based on the limited interest from utilities, which he said rendered the compressor unnecessary for about 60 percent of the pipeline capacity.

He said Tuesday that he was “very disappointed ” with the office’s ruling and raised similar concerns to those voiced by O’Connor about the project’s necessity.

“While government is approving the project, the market is telling us it is no longer needed,” Hedlund said in a statement. “By the time all permits and appeals are done, few will actually buy the natural gas. We will end up with a $100 million white elephant on the Fore River waterfront whose costs will then be passed on to rate payers.”

Gronendyke said that CZM’s decision “does not weigh the necessity of additional gas infrastructure” because that decision is part of FERC’s certification.

The Baker administration has often said that FERC is the ultimate authority on project siting. Gov. Charlie Baker said in January that he “basically had no choice” but to allow state permits to move forward following a health impact assessment. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which conducted the assessment, has since requested an external review to determine whether the conclusions are valid after new data was released.

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Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey criticized the decision Tuesday evening, but pledged that “the fight to stop this project is not over.”

“I will continue to stand with the residents and activists who have been warriors in the battle to stop a project this is meant only to send natural gas abroad to the highest bidder,” Markey said in a statement. “These communities have nothing to gain and everything to lose if this compressor station gets built.”