More pipelines aren’t the answer

The weather outside is frightful – and so is our over-reliance on natural gas

NEW ENGLAND IS in the clutches of a frigid winter. This is putting demands on our energy resources and driving up electricity prices during the few hours of the day when consumer electricity use is highest. Concerns over these temporary price spikes are warranted, particularly given their impacts on our most vulnerable. But year after year, the oil and gas industry takes advantage of this situation with fear-mongering, self-serving calls for New England’s families and businesses to spend billions on gas pipelines that will profit only the industry while polluting our air. But doubling down on our over-reliance on fossil fuels would only add fuel to the fire, and it’s telling that this one-sided proposal has already been considered and rejected by New England’s leaders.

To start, it is critical to acknowledge the historically short duration of winter price spikes. When they occur, they are limited to a handful of hours during the mornings and evenings of only our coldest days, when there is a coincidence of high gas use for heating and for generating electricity. As a result, these costly “needle peak” demands for electricity generally occur only 10 to 40 days out of the year, or in the range of 5 percent of the total hours the system operates in a year. The prospect of spending billions of dollars on pipelines that will sit idle 95 percent of the time and become obsolete in the next 10 to 15 years as our grid becomes increasingly clean defies all economic sense, environmental sense, and common sense.

What’s more, these short-term spikes are occurring in the midst of a steep, three-year downward trend in annual wholesale electricity costs. By doing the exact opposite of what fossil fuel companies are suggesting – by, instead, diversifying our energy sources and investing in wind and solar power – we’re seeing energy prices moving in the right direction. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

There are steps we can take today to address our limited price spikes by taking better advantage of existing LNG storage, investing in energy efficiency, and fixing leaking infrastructure. But sacrificing our future for an unproven and theoretical short-term gain should not be on the table. If expanding gas pipelines makes economic sense, then why haven’t the petroleum giants invested their own money to make it happen? It’s simple: they consider it too big a risk to put down their own money, so they’d rather gamble with ours.

But we know better and have the studies to prove it. These include analyses commissioned by consumer watchdogs at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and the Maine Public Utilities Commission and from some of the best energy consulting firms in the country. They conclude that the costs of gas pipeline expansions outweigh any potential benefits. Another study found that, rather than save money, a new pipeline would result in overall net costs of as much as $277 million for New England electricity consumers. These economic flaws, along with legal impediments, spelled the demise of Kinder Morgan’s huge Northeast Energy Direct pipeline and caused the funding scheme for Spectra’s massive Access Northeast proposals to be rejected by state courts and utility commissions.

There is also serious doubt as to whether new pipelines would even help us avoid winter price surges. In regions of the country that sit on top of significant gas supply and where gas pipelines have proliferated, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and mid-Atlantic states, prices still spike during cold weather. During the last major cold snap in 2014, electricity prices in that mid-Atlantic region exceeded those in New England, and we are seeing a similar trend of high prices in that region over the past two weeks of cold temperatures. This suggests that, even if we could accept the exorbitant price tag for more pipelines and afford to ignore their damaging impacts on our climate, it’s likely that short-term price spikes would persist as long as we remain over-reliant upon gas as a fuel source.

Meet the Author
So enough with the empty rhetoric. It’s time for the gas industry, and our utilities, to help New England implement real, forward-thinking solutions that reduce gas and electricity price spikes while speeding our transition to a clean energy economy.

Greg Cunningham is the director of Conservation Law Foundation’s clean energy and climate change program.