Amendment would help Salem power plant
Would thwart legal challenge by CLF
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A Salem state representative who has faced prior criticism for insisting on language beneficial to a planned power plant in his city is facing criticism anew for seeking to smooth the path for the plant in a bill adding new regulations to stamp out gas leaks.
Rep. John Keenan, a Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said the language he added with the support of committee colleagues would let stand approvals from the Energy Facilities Siting Board and other oversight bodies for construction of a natural gas plant at the site of Salem’s closing coal power plant. The step is necessary, he said, in the face of litigation filed by the Conservation Law Foundation, which he said is seeking “another bite at the apple.”
The provisions added to the bill (H 2950) would exempt from certain permitting requirements Footprint Power’s plans for a new plant at the site of the Salem Harbor Power Station.
Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat, filed similar legislation (H 2933) to address gas leaks, which unlike Keenan’s bill did not have the backing of gas companies, and said she would vote against her colleague’s bill if the provisions for Footprint are not deleted.
Ehrlich, who has fought to reduce gas leaks since she entered the Legislature five years ago, called the Keenan additions a “blatant special favor” for Footprint Power.
“It really makes me wonder what the developers are so worried about in the permitting process that they can’t see it through. To circumvent normal reviews to me is a signal that something is terribly wrong with the proposal or it would stand on its own,” she told the News Service.
Before becoming a legislator, Ehrlich worked on requiring the coal plant to clean up coal waste from a local aquifer, and she has pushed for a bill (H 2933) that includes a more aggressive schedule for utilities to repair leaking natural gas pipes, which she said can lead to violent and costly explosions or the slow death of nearby vegetation.
Ehrlich does not support the conversion of the Salem power plant from coal to natural gas, describing how after years of air pollution and high rates of cancer and asthma in her community she is “not excited to have another one.”
“They like to claim they’re improving emissions because a gas plant runs cleaner than a coal plant, but in reality they’re taking credit for a plant that’s already closing,” Ehrlich said, a reference to the scheduled June 1, 2014 closing date for the Salem Harbor power plant.
The Salem Democrat faced criticism from his North Shore colleague Ehrlich last year for what environmental opponents described as a “sweetheart deal” providing Footprint and other developers seeking to convert coal-fired plants to natural gas with long-term, 15-year energy contracts. Added to a larger energy bill, Keenan’s proposal drew opposition from the Patrick administration and the attorney general and was ultimately replaced with a compromise giving Footprint extended property tax incentives through 2019.
“That was not a sweetheart deal last year. This is not a sweetheart deal this year,” said Keenan. He said, “They’ve done everything by the book.”
Footprint is seeking to build at the site of a soon-to-be-shuttered coal plant along the water, and Keenan said the region needs the added energy to avoid “rolling brownouts.”
“This project has to go forward for the reliability of the grid,” Keenan said.
The bill states the developer is “hereby granted a composite of all state and local permits, approvals and authorizations.” Keenan said CLF has taken every opportunity to appeal permitting decisions by regulatory boards involved in the process. He believes the new plant must go online by June 2016.
“They need to tear down and build a new power plant in 30 months. I don’t want to push it off for a year,” he said.
In a blog post, CLF Attorney Shanna Cleveland said Keenan’s attempt to secure the power plant “no matter the cost, is both unconstitutional and unconscionable,” and said alternatives to strengthen the grid with “already planned transmission upgrades, may be cheaper and less carbon intensive.”
Cleveland also questioned whether the new gas-fired plant would meet the state greenhouse gas reduction goals mandated under the Global Warming Solutions Act.
“The bottom line is that while natural gas may burn cleaner than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel with significant carbon emissions. Locking in new natural gas infrastructure means locking out zero-carbon technologies like wind and solar,” Cleveland wrote.
In addition to establishing a gas leak classification system, Keenan said his bill includes a provision for inspecting vaults, which can lead to death for utility workers in the case of a gas leak, and allows the utilities to seek rate increases for work before the job of replacing and repairing leaky pipes has been completed.
“Cape Wind is not going in the ground yet, so there are a lot of problems, and over 3,000 megawatts or so that are going to be coming offline in the next three years,” Keenan said. “I think there is a real potential and concern for rolling brownouts if the Salem plant is not built.”Keenan said he doubted the bill would be taken up before the close of this year’s formal sessions, which end next Wednesday. Formal sessions resume in January and run through July of 2014.
The committee also unanimously passed legislation (H 2945) that regulates double poles, which result when utilities prop up an older electrical or telephone pole with a new one but do not remove the old pole.