Baker still wants new natural gas pipeline

Hassan of New Hampshire raises environmental concern

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER is continuing to push for a new natural gas pipeline into the region, but at a conference on Monday with fellow New England governors and Canadian premiers he got some mild pushback from Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

Recently passed energy legislation in Massachusetts gave Baker the opportunity to pursue imports of Canadian hydroelectricity and the development of an offshore wind industry. But a Supreme Judicial Court decision shot down the administration’s novel bid to tap ratepayers of electric utilities for the funds to purchase long-term natural gas contracts, which would be used to help finance new pipeline infrastructure.

The Baker administration and the state’s utilities say a new natural gas pipeline is needed to bring down gas prices, particularly in the high-demand winter months. They say any money spent to finance the new pipeline would more than be offset by lower electricity prices. But Attorney General Maura Healey, most Massachusetts lawmakers, and state environmental groups say a new pipeline isn’t needed and electric ratepayers should not be asked to pay for a project that will only increase the state’s and the region’s reliance on a fossil fuel.

Matthew Beaton, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said on Monday at the conference that the administration is continuing to pursue a new natural gas pipeline. He said one option is the long-standing approach of having natural gas utilities purchase the long-term natural gas contracts necessary to finance pipeline expansion, but he acknowledged that process would be slower and wouldn’t be as effective.

“We are confident that something will move forward,” Beaton said. “We’re going to continue to work with all parties involved.”

The sensitive pipeline issue didn’t surface during a panel discussion on energy issues in front of the governors and premiers at the Hynes Convention Center. But Baker brought it up immediately when the panel session opened to questions. He asked the panelists, who included Beaton and top officials from National Grid and Eversource Energy, about the cost to consumers of a limited natural gas pipeline network in the region. He said he thought the extra cost ran into the billions of dollars.

Gov. Charlie Baker, center, with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard on the left and Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan on the right.

Gov. Charlie Baker, center, with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard on the left and Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan on the right.

Marcy Reed, president of National Grid Massachusetts, said the cost was $7 billion over the last three to four winters and added that the estimated additional cost going forward is $1 billion a year. At times during the winter months, when demand for natural gas rises to heat homes and keep power plants operating, the lack of pipeline capacity in New England means the price of natural gas can spiral upward. That higher price shows up on consumer utility bills in the form of higher rates.

Reed assured Baker that expanding the region’s natural gas pipeline infrastructure remains a high priority for her company. Penni McLean-Conner, a senior vice president at Eversource Energy, said additional pipeline capacity is needed as a backstop for the development of renewable energy and to allow customers heating their homes with oil to shift to natural gas.

National Grid, Eversource Energy, and Spectra Energy of Houston are partners in a company called Access Northeast, which is seeking to expand an existing pipeline into the region. Executives recently sent a letter to New England policymakers stressing the need for a new natural gas pipeline, but they didn’t say how they would bring that about in the wake of the Supreme Judicial Court decision.

Hassan raised concerns about the negative environmental consequences of increasing reliance on fracked gas. She pointed to recent research, apparently at Colorado State University, suggesting that high levels of methane gas are emitted in the development of wells that draw natural gas from the ground using a process called fracking. She questioned whether the process is environmentally sustainable.

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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.

Reed didn’t address the research directly, but suggested natural gas is a bridge fuel that the region needs to transition to a cleaner energy future. “The fact is we’ve all been using fracked gas for decades,” she said.

At a press availability after the panel discussion, Hassan said she wasn’t necessarily signaling opposition to a new pipeline by raising concerns about emissions from natural gas wells.

“What I was raising is relatively recent science that indicates the fracking process can leak methane and can contribute to carbon emissions and, therefore, global warming,” she said. “I think it’s very important that we take that into consideration in that it seems natural gas may not be as clean as people thought it was prior. And that should inform all policymakers.”