More natural gas needed to rein in energy costs

Lawmakers should protect consumers, ignore Karenna Gore and pipeline protesters

CONSUMERS IN MASSACHUSETTS pay over 50 percent more for electricity than the national average. As a matter of fact, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that Bay State consumers pay the fourth-highest rate for electricity in the country. In all, the New England region has paid about $7 billion more for electricity the past two winters than other regions of the country with access to natural gas.

And unless we take immediate steps to upgrade and expand our energy infrastructure, relief won’t be coming anytime soon.

Perhaps that’s why a new poll commissioned by Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) found that an overwhelming majority of Bay State voters – 73 percent, to be exact – support the use of natural gas for electricity generation. They also favor the construction of natural gas infrastructure like the Access Northeast project by a 54 percent to 30 percent margin.

Massachusetts voters support expansion of energy infrastructure because they know that higher energy costs are a major burden on low-income consumers, families on fixed incomes, and businesses. Every dollar spent on extra energy costs is one less dollar spent on payroll, employee’s health care, or at the grocery store.

Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Senate isn’t paying attention to the wants or needs of its constituents.

How else do you explain the Senate last month voting for language that will make it far more difficult for companies to finance important natural gas infrastructure projects? By removing the contracting mechanism that industry needs to bring cleaner-burning natural gas into the marketplace, the Senate voted for a de facto roadblock for many future infrastructure projects which would bring much-needed relief to Massachusetts consumers.

This vote comes at a time when New England is more dependent than ever on clean natural gas for electricity generation. As more coal and nuclear plants go offline, this dependency will only intensify.  So, too, will our need for more natural gas supply. Expanding New England’s pipeline system would alleviate bottlenecks, reduce price volatility, and help get more natural gas to power plants on the coldest winter days.

New England’s grid manager, ISO New England, has repeatedly said the region’s “power system continues to be in a precarious position during extended periods of extreme cold” – and that it will “continue to be that way until New England’s natural gas infrastructure is expanded to meet the demand for gas.”

According to ICF International, New England businesses and households use 3.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day for electricity and heating. On bone-chilling winter nights, this figure balloons to 4.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas – and that’s just for heating.

And while a noisy minority of anti-energy extremists have spread unfounded and irrational fears about clean natural gas and its required pipeline construction, they have yet to offer a realistic alternative to how we can maintain affordable, reliable electricity prices. Renewable energy resources – while an important, growing component of the all-of-the-above energy strategy Massachusetts needs – can’t go at it alone. Just ask the US Department of Energy, which estimated that Massachusetts last year received just a little over 9 percent of its power from renewable energy.

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CEA’s poll also found that 68 percent of state voters polled said that energy issues and mounting electricity bills would be a determining factor on how they vote come Election Day.

Moving forward, we hope that the legislature will listen more closely to their own constituents rather than out-of-state protesters like Karenna Gore and better support policies that will expand – rather than restrict – natural gas supplies to the region.

Michael Whatley is executive vice president of Consumer Energy Alliance, a Texas-based nonprofit with 400,000 members supported by energy firms and energy consumers, primarily businesses.