Senate energy debate could get heated

Natural gas ‘tax’ is one of many big policy issues

THE HOUSE PRECLUDED MOST DEBATE on its energy bill, but the more free-wheeling Senate looks as if it will take on some major policy issues in its deliberations on Thursday. Some observers are nervous that if the Senate pushes too far it may be difficult to reach an agreement with the House before the session ends at the end of next month.

Ronald Gerwatowski, an energy advisor who formerly worked for the Baker administration and National Grid, said it appears many amendments with significant implications will come into play in the Senate. “It’s all happening so late so fast,” he said. “It illustrates why the Commonwealth is in dire need of a comprehensive energy planning process.  Without a credible integrated plan, we are at risk that energy policy becomes nothing but the outcome of perennial bruising fights among competing interests.”

The Senate bill already differs from the House legislation on a number of fronts. The Senate bill increases the procurements for hydroelectricity and offshore wind, doubles the mandated growth rate for renewable energy, eliminates utility remuneration for negotiating power deals, and allows Cape Wind to bid on offshore wind contracts.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s senior energy and environmental advisors say there’s a lot to like in the Senate bill, but they say they are concerned that the procurements are too large. Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, however, thinks the procurements aren’t big enough and has filed amendments to increase them.

The Healey staffers said the procurements of offshore wind and hydroelectricity under the House bill represent about 32 percent of the state’s energy load this year. They said the procurements envisioned by the Senate bill would represent 46 percent of the state’s energy load. With Tarr’s amendments, the amount would rise to 57 percent, they said.

The Healey staffers acknowledged the energy procurements would be completed not in one year but over several years. Still, they said, amounts above the House levels could drive up electricity prices and hurt ratepayers.  They worried about the relatively few competitors bidding for the contracts. And they said nothing would preclude the state from increasing the procurements in coming years.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville is pushing an amendment to the Senate bill that would bar state regulators from letting electric utilities tap their customers to finance new natural gas pipelines. She calls her measure an amendment “protecting ratepayers from unwarranted taxation.”

The issue of whether electric ratepayers can be assessed to finance natural gas infrastructure is currently before the Supreme Judicial Court. The Conservation Law Foundation argues existing law doesn’t allow it, while the Baker administration’s Department of Public Utilities says the law does. The justices held a hearing on the issue in May, and a decision is expected later this summer.

Jehlen said she is filing her amendment because of uncertainty about how the justices will rule. “We don’t think the amendment is necessary, but we think it would be smart to put it in anyway,” she said.

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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.

Jehlen says she is optimistic her amendment will pass, and she says there is also strong support for it in the House. Nearly 100 members of the House signed a letter urging leadership not to include a provision allowing utilities to assess ratepayers for natural gas infrastructure. The House bill didn’t include the provision, but also didn’t prohibit assessments on electric ratepayers for natural gas infrastructure.

Senators are also diving into other controversial issues with amendments. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, is pushing amendments that would expand the solar power market in Massachusetts, an issue the House and Senate don’t agree on. Sen. Viriato deMacedo, a Republican from Plymouth, filed an amendment that borrows language from the House bill and would bar Cape Wind from participating in the offshore wind procurements. Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, a Democrat from  Arlington, is backing an amendment that requires disclosure of executive compensation at utilities and bars the utilities from recovering any salary amounts in excess of $750,000 from ratepayers.