CLF’s contradictory philosophies

Group could help T by supporting new pipelines

NOT ALL MBTA COLLISIONS involve the rolling stock. On Jan. 4, there was a head-on collision between two contradictory philosophies affecting the T. Both philosophies are espoused by a single Boston institution known for its skill in shaping public perceptions, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).

CLF as critic of fare increases on the T ran smack into CLF as enemy of changes that could significantly reduce T energy costs.

CLF vice president Rafael Mares criticized both of the fare hike proposals now on the table for “punishing the victim,” a reference to the hardships endured by T riders last winter.

The irony of the moment seemed lost on Mr. Mares: his organization is pushing a policy that, if adopted, would prevent the T from saving so much on electricity it could actually cut the size of fare increases in  a major way.

More than 30 expert studies have shown that inadequate gas pipeline capacity raises overall electricity costs in New England by about $3 billion per year. CLF opposes achieving such adequacy, even though it would allow everybody who pays an electric bill to benefit from the new bounty of domestically  produced gas in Pennsylvania.

The MBTA is one of the largest electricity consumers in all of New England, with an energy bill of over $40 million a year. The gas pipeline constraints that add billions to the region’s overall electric costs account for roughly $13 million, or 32 percent, of the T’s $40 million bill.

Compare that number to the likely impacts of the current fare hike concepts: Option A would reduce the T’s structural deficit by $10 million, while Option B would reduce it by $26 million. Therefore, a $13 million reduction in MBTA electric costs could entirely eliminate the need for Option A and cut the impact on T riders of Option B by 50 percent.

To be fair, CLF supported increased reliance on natural gas before they opposed it. Around the year 2000, CLF led the restructuring of New England’s electric industry, which took electric generation out of the utility monopoly. The CLF goal was for new, efficient natural gas generators to be built and then out-compete the old, expensive, and polluting coal and oil power plants that utilities had long shielded with their monopolies. As then CLF President Doug Foy said: “what was unusual about our strategy is that we got out front and said ‘we really want to have these plants built.’” (A Bold Collaboration, David Trueblood, June 22, 2001.) CLF was right: more than two dozen gas-fired power plants were built in New England with CLF’s active support and many, but not all, New England coal and oil plants have been shut down.

Since then, however, CLF has become the leading New England opponent of increased use of natural gas. CLF now actively opposes new gas power plants and, more critically, new gas pipelines into New England. CLF even opposes the pipeline capacity necessary for just one-half of the two dozen power plants it actively caused to be built to run during the four-month winter heating season. Instead, now the very coal and oil plants CLF sought to displace must run again during the New England winter.

On a typical winter day, New England needs about 3.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas to heat our homes and businesses. On a cold day, we need 4.5 billion cubic feet. We need a minimum of 1 billion cubic feet per day to run essential gas power plants, or we must rely on dirty coal and oil. That’s 4.4 billion cubic feet on typical winter days and 5.4 billion cubic feet on cold days.

Unfortunately, our pipelines can supply only 3.6 billion cubic feet of gas per day, so we frequently in winter lack the gas necessary to both heat New England cleanly and to power the minimum gas plants required for clean electricity. The simple fact is that, since 2010, New England consumers have switched by the tens of thousands from expensive heating oil to cheaper, cleaner natural gas. (Isn’t gas better than oil for heat?) This trend certainly will continue. (Forty percent of New England households still heat with oil; the national oil heat reliance rate is 5.5 percent.) Heating comes first, and that is why we need more gas pipeline capacity for New England. Without new pipeline capacity we cannot rely in winter, when we most need them, on the gas power plants CLF encouraged us to build.

Meet the Author
CLF has every right to change its opinion. But CLF also has a greater responsibility to the public than it may believe. When CLF or other public actors change the infrastructure on which millions of less powerful citizens depend, there is an obligation to avoid destructive collisions between the prior successful infrastructure advocacy and the new, changed advocacy.

CLF is in no small part directly responsible for the excessively high energy costs suffered by the MBTA in serving millions of citizens each year. To pretend otherwise, such as in opposing rate increases it has helped to cause, is a collision in which both credibility and MBTA consumers are the victims.

Anthony W. Buxton is chair of both the Energy Group and the Climate Strategy Group at the law firm of Preti Flaherty. He serves as general counsel to the Coalition to Lower Energy Costs.