What will Brad Jones do?

Republican rep is wildcard on pipeline provision

REP. BRADLEY JONES JR. of North Reading is caught in a tug-of-war between the House and Senate as the two branches try to find common ground on energy legislation.

Jones is the Republican member of the three-person House team working to resolve differences with the Senate on energy bills passed by the two branches. On one key issue – whether to allow electric utilities to tap their customers for the money needed to finance a new natural gas pipeline – Jones is philosophically in tune with the Senate. What’s unclear is whether Jones’s personal position will trump his institutional loyalty to the House. Jones declined comment.

First, some background. Proposals to build new natural gas pipelines into the region have become lightning rods in the state’s energy debate, both because of opposition on the ground from those affected by the construction and because of concerns about increasing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

While regulatory oversight of pipeline construction is left to the federal government, the financing of a pipeline has become a complicated state issue. The actual customers of the pipeline — the region’s natural gas-fired power plants – don’t want to sign long-term contracts for gas because they have no guarantees that they will be able to recover their money.

So the Baker administration came up with the novel idea of having electric utilities sign the long-term contracts and have their customers foot the bill. The rationale is that cheap gas coming into the region, particularly in the winter months when gas supplies are tight and prices are on the rise, would save customers more money than the long-term contracts would cost them.

The Conservation Law Foundation is challenging the Baker administration’s view that state law allows electric ratepayers to pay for a natural gas pipeline. The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule on the issue soon, but no one is confident about where the court will come down, so there is a battle going on in the Legislature to take the issue out of the hands of the justices.

As the House was crafting its energy bill, top lawmakers reportedly considered inserting a provision that would make it clear that the law allows electric ratepayers to pay for natural gas infrastructure. The idea was dropped, however, when 95 House members in early April signed a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo urging him not to include the provision.

The letter, drafted by Jones and Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from Worthington, voiced opposition to a gas pipeline in general and specifically to any move to have electric ratepayers finance it. “Ordinarily, the natural gas producers would be expected to pay for this infrastructure expansion, if the expected revenue from natural gas sales would justify the cost,” the letter said. “The fact that this is not happening means industry players have determined the risk is not worth the reward. Why should the ratepayer shoulder risk when private industry is unwilling to?”

The Senate, in its energy deliberations, approached the same problem from a different angle. The body approved, by a vote of 39-0, an amendment prohibiting electricity customers from paying for a natural gas pipeline.

The House and Senate energy bills are now before the six-person conference committee. The three senators, Benjamin Downing, Marc Pacheco, and Bruce Tarr, all voted for the Senate amendment. The House members are harder to read. Presumably, Reps. Brian Dempsey and Thomas Golden would be opposed to the Senate provision, which leaves Jones as the wild card. If he were to side with the senators, they could approve the provision barring ratepayers from shouldering the financing costs of a pipeline.

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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.

Kathryn Eiseman, an activist who opposes the construction of new natural gas pipelines, said Jones has been “something of a hero” in the pipeline fight so far. “I certainly hope he sticks to his guns on this,” she said.

Legislative conference committees generally operate behind closed doors and don’t follow any set rules. Sometimes the committee as a whole goes over a bill line by line to resolve differences; other times the two senior members of the committee engage in horse-trading and the other members play minor roles.

Robert Hedlund, the mayor of Weymouth and a former state senator, said almost anything can happen in a conference committee. But he said conference committee deliberations in general revolve around House and Senate priorities rather than the positions of individual committee members.  “It’s about institutional control more than ideology 80 percent of the time,” he said.