We’re not absolutists, we’re realists

New gas pipelines won’t help us meet our 2050 climate goals

AS OUR STATE EXPERIENCED back-to-back 100-year floods, the Boston Globe’s editorial writers were busy this winter honing their case for expansion of natural gas pipeline capacity in New England that would make such flooding even more common. They’ve characterized opponents of new gas pipelines as being moralistic “purists” and “absolutists” who are willingly blind to the effects of importing liquefied natural gas, either by ship or by rail.

At 350 Massachusetts, we believe the necessity of using LNG is an outgrowth of our overdependence on natural gas – an overdependence that has arisen in part from policy decisions, but is largely due to market forces. We view LNG as an expedient stop-gap fuel that, with proper foresight and planning, can provide power at times of extreme load. This is why our regional grid operator has created incentives for power plants to contract for LNG early in the heating season.

From our perspective, the primary disadvantage of new pipeline construction, in contrast to the use of LNG, is that it sets up a durable market advantage for a fossil fuel that is nowhere near as “clean” as its proponents argue. Our energy system can utilize LNG without the requirement of massive capital investment in infrastructure that is effectively permanent. Policymakers have to make these choices in the context of how global energy systems will evolve between now and 2050.

Laudably, the Commonwealth has committed to restructure its energy mix in the coming decades through both state law and Gov. Charlie Baker’s pledge to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement in Massachusetts. If we are still burning natural gas to generate electricity in 2050, then we will not have done our part in the global effort to combat climate change nor met our own goals. So the question is how to make the transition from today’s energy mix to the one we envision for the next generation.

Construction of new natural gas infrastructure works directly against the necessary conversion of our energy system to renewable fuels. From a financial standpoint, a gas pipeline must have a 40-year lifetime to merit the required capital expenditure. By buying into pipeline development, we’d be laying the groundwork for a future energy market that advantages a fuel that we don’t want to use at all. And structuring the long-term market to make fossil fuels more competitive against renewables is antithetical to achieving mandated pollution reduction goals.

Our policy decisions should not be dictated by the apocalyptic scenarios depicted in the Globe’s editorials. At least one study forecasts that by the time a new pipeline comes on line, gas demand may actually be declining as more solar, wind, and hydro power becomes available. And at ISO New England’s forward capacity auction last month, the grid operator secured ample power commitments for anticipated demand in 2021-2022.

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
Instead of doubling down on more fossil fuel infrastructure, the Commonwealth should remain resolute in its strategy of decarbonizing its energy economy. In doing so, we will upset vested interests and create short-term market disruptions, but staying on course is a fulfillment of the responsibility to do our part and protect our residents from the extreme weather of climate change.

Craig S. Altemose is the senior advisor of 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future, a statewide network of climate activists that advocates for strong climate policy in Massachusetts. He also was appointed by former governor Deval Patrick to the state’s Climate Protection and Green Economy Advisory Committee.