Time to turn page on natural gas

Debunking the Access Northeast letter to policymakers

AS REPORTED LAST WEEK, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a utility-proposed cost-recovery scheme – the “pipeline tax” that would have helped finance Spectra’s Access Northeast project – violated the 1997 Restructuring Act. In response to this ruling, the project’s developers, National Grid, Eversource, and Spectra Energy, represented by John Flynn, Lee Olivier, and Bill Yardley, respectively, delivered a letter to policymakers assuring all that their companies are undeterred and remain firmly committed to the construction of new gas infrastructure.

This reassurance comes after National Grid and Eversource formally withdrew petitions for contract approval that were before the Department of Public Utilities. They did so while reserving “their right to seek Department approval of the same or similar agreements in the future to the extent that, in the future, there is a change in relation to the Department’s legal authority to approve such agreements.”

If legislative change altering DPU’s authority is an avenue being considered by the utilities, it should be noted that the Legislature has made clear its position on ratepayer protections. In June, the Senate voted unanimously, 39-0, to ban a pipeline tax as part of its energy bill. A 97-member majority in the House took a similar stance in a letter delivered to leadership last April. The public, too, has been adamantly opposed to the pipeline tax.

Couched as a commitment to helping the region address its energy needs, Spectra Energy’s letter to policymakers is laden with dubious claims of reliability and price concerns that have been thoroughly discredited by a study released by The Analysis Group on behalf of Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, as well as in testimony submitted to the DPU by the Attorney General, the Conservation Law Foundation, and other energy experts.

In the letter, the developers assert that “the court’s decision provides no solution to the energy cost, reliability, and environmental challenges” we face today, and suggest that their project alone is the answer. But theirs is a narrow solution that will lead Massachusetts and the region down a path at odds with the clean energy transition already underway. 

The court’s decision was crystal clear on the one point that mattered most in the case:  Massachusetts electric ratepayers cannot be made to bear the burden of new gas infrastructure.

Justice Robert Cordy wrote for a unanimous court: “The department’s stated motive in issuing the order is to correct a perceived failure of market-based incentives to encourage wholesale generators to contract for adequate pipeline capacity. However, its means of doing so, namely by reallocating risk onto the ratepayers, is clearly prohibited by legislative policy.”

On this, other states should take note. It is not that ratepayer financing does not make sense only for customers in the Bay State; the risks consumers would be exposed to do not make sense in any state for any electric ratepayer.

At the very least, other states in the region should consider how this decision will impact the costs and risks their ratepayers are being asked to bear and perhaps reevaluate how other measures (e.g., efficiency, hydro, renewables, etc.) now stack up against a newly constructed pipeline for which they may be on the hook for 20 years. 

Massachusetts has a statutory obligation under the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2050. In fact, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in May that the state has an imperative to achieve “declining annual aggregate emissions” by 2020. We cannot build out and use massive new gas infrastructure and comply with the mandates of GWSA.

On the claim that new gas pipelines are needed to keep the lights on in New England, The Analysis Group’s conclusion is unambiguous: “No. Under business-as-usual circumstances, the region can maintain electric reliability through 2030, even without additional new natural gas pipelines. Even under a ‘stressed system’ scenario, there are cheaper, less carbon intensive ways to ensure electric reliability, like energy efficiency and demand response, that are less risky for ratepayers.”

Meet the Author

Eugenia Gibbons

Clean energy program director, Mass Energy Consumers Alliance
States across the region are already successfully reducing demand for natural gas and gradually increasing the contribution made by energy efficiency and renewable resources. The comprehensive energy bill passed last month by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker two weeks ago will lead to even greater amounts of hydroelectricity and offshore wind brought online by 2030. These are the resources capable of meeting demand, ensuring reliability, and helping comply with greenhouse gas emission reduction mandates.

The law is clear. The policy framework exists. The reality is that we are pursuing this path and need to focus on implementing a strategy that achieves a clean energy transition. There is no space in that strategy for a fracked gas infrastructure project that makes sense neither economically nor environmentally. There is no justification for burdening any ratepayers in this way.  It is time to turn the page on gas. Massachusetts must accelerate its pursuit of a robust clean energy economy rooted in efficiency, hydroelectricity, and renewables. This is the future we share with our regional neighbors and one that cannot be derailed by contriving ways to pay for gas infrastructure that has no place in the tale.

Eugenia Gibbons is the clean energy program director at Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit seeking to make energy more affordable and sustainable.

  • common sense

    What an idiot. The technology is totally cost prohibitive to switch to total renewables in the next 40 years. Rolling blackouts and elderly people freezing to death would be the consequence. Natural gas is the only reliable fuel that makes any common sense.

  • lhawk

    EXACTLY Eugenia! thank you. Clearly these fake posters work for their billionare bosses, who are the ONLY ones benefiting from the False Narrative they contrived. So transparant. EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE is against this back door shady deal that clearly benefits only the corporations looking to broker this deal for export profits to Canada and beyond. So glad there are SO many in Mass who can see through this cherade! Sorry Texas a-holes, Mass is too educated to allow your schemes in our state. :P

  • lhawk

    oh and not to mention that the usual rhetoric, of “jobs” falls very flat here in Mass, where we have successfuly created 98,000! NEW renewable jobs, permanent job, GOOD paying jobs, in just a few short years. While the pipeline construction jobs, are temporary at best. So any commenters posting as being pro pipeline, really have absolutely no leg to stand on. We’ve busted through every single one of these lies… That’s what these Texas based companies lack to understand about Mass.

  • common sense

    Good luck keeping your house warm in winter and cool in summer.

  • Jan Galkowski

    And, on top of everything else, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that, for the first time, CO2 emissions from burning natural gas have exceeded those from burning coal. See http://cleantechnica.com/2016/08/27/us-eia-natural-gas-co2-emissions-surpassing-coal-emissions/

    It does not matter a bit if, joule for joule or kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour if the CO2 or CO2-equivalents of natural gas were less than coal or oil, if the total emissions of CO2 goes up because of its use, this is LOSSAGE, and does not get us anywhere nearer to the goal of zero CO2 emissions, a target which is THE ONLY WAY THAT CLIMATE DISRUPTION CAN BE STOPPED. Climate effects of CO2 are not like those of other pollutants: They are CUMULATIVE and there is no natural process which scrubs or dilutes them on a time scale that can help us.

  • NortheasternEE

    When the lights begin to flicker, everyone will put the blame on the utilities. But, the utilities are no longer responsible because, starting with the 2008 Green Communities Act, Beacon Hill, and other regional state governments, have taken over the micromanagement of the electricity grid, mandating the transition to a carbon free energy future. The law only recognizes wind and solar energy as carbon-free resources, forcing utilities and the grid to accept ever-increasing levels of intermittent and variable wind and solar power, on the expectation that fossil fuel resources (coal and natural gas) will be forced into early retirement.
    Today, Beacon Hill doubled down by mandating a large chunk of offshore wind power. Experience with wind and solar grid penetration shows that it is not replacing coal and natural gas as promised. The mandated projections of wind and solar are forcing the early retirement of coal and nuclear with just about zero avoidance of CO2 emissions. Furthermore, anticipated increases in intermittent and variable power from wind and solar is increasing the demand for more natural gas peaking power(super polluters) for firming stability, bringing us to a point where CO2 actually went up.
    Beacon Hill’s energy policy is not working. Rates are skyrocketing. CO2 is going up. And, without more natural gas, the lights will flicker and go out.
    Tell Beacon Hill to stop and leave the operation of the grid to the professionals at ISO-NE!