Three takes on natural gas

Charlie Baker, Weymouth compressor station, hookup moratoriums

The following three opinion pieces all focus on the great divide in Massachusetts over natural gas and its accompanying infrastructure.


Baker’s mixed record on climate change

Craig Altemose

EARLIER THIS MONTH, Gov. Charlie Baker traveled down to Washington, DC, to testify before a congressional committee about Massachusetts’s climate leadership. For many Americans, it was a proud and hopeful moment: a Republican governor talking about climate change as a bipartisan issue and offering real policies and solutions.

And it’s true that we are fortunate in Massachusetts to have a bipartisan consensus on the need for – and opportunities around – climate action. As Baker noted, our state’s keystone climate law, the Global Warming Solutions Act, was passed unanimously in a bipartisan manner, while recent climate bills have similarly attracted significant Republican legislative support. Yet in 2019, agreeing that we should do something about climate change is simply not enough, especially when the solutions proposed do not line up with the scale and urgency of the problem.

And Baker’s record on climate change has been sadly mixed at best. The governor has provided truly national leadership on preparing Massachusetts and its 351 cities and towns for climate impacts, and similarly deserves credit for his championing of the nascent offshore wind industry. And he has helped move forward an important regional transportation initiative to help tackle climate pollution from cars and trucks across the northeast. But he has failed to keep his administration’s policies in line with the latest science, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in his continued support for the expansion of natural gas pipelines, power plants, and compressor stations.

Indeed, while Baker was happy to travel more than 400 hundred miles to Washington to speak with Congress, he has yet to venture to his office’s waiting room to meet with Weymouth resident Andrea Honore. Frustrated by Baker’s support of a proposed dangerous natural gas compressor station in Weymouth, Andrea has been sitting in his office during her lunch break for more than 100 days. During that time, the governor has not even acknowledged her presence, much less engaged substantively with her.

Further, Baker has so far refused to visit the community of Weymouth, where virtually every public official has come out strongly against the proposed compressor station. A bipartisan consensus of dozens of local elected officials of both parties, including the entire city councils of Weymouth, Quincy, Braintree, and Hingham along with the area’s mayors, the entire South Shore state legislative delegation, and more are in strong opposition to the project, thanks in no small part to the fierce and strategic grassroots organizing led by Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS).

And it’s not just that Baker is going against strong local opposition to support an unnecessary and dangerous project; he is also going against climate science in doing so. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report laid out in stark terms that we have less than 11 years to completely restructure our economy to deal with the climate crisis. That timeline for action is simply incompatible with building new fossil fuel infrastructure like the Weymouth Compressor Station in 2019.

As Canadian gas company Enbridge has tried to build the Weymouth Compressor Station, Baker unduly constrained a Health Impact Assessment. Baker claimed that it was “probably the most comprehensive analysis within that framework that anybody’s done anywhere around one of these permits,” but the organization subcontracted to carry out the review said the assessment was rushed. And while the health assessment came back positive, the executive director of the organization released a statement nonetheless voicing strong opposition to the project, citing, among other things, its inconsistency with our state’s climate laws. That same day, Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility also came out strongly against the project, releasing their own assessment of the dangers and health threats from the project seemingly overlooked by the earlier assessment.

And the Weymouth Compressor Station is only the latest flashpoint in a years-long struggle by Baker to build out the state’s gas infrastructure. In his first term, he tried to charge Massachusetts ratepayers billions of dollars to build new fracked gas pipelines, which was stopped by the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruling his proposal unconstitutional. He has yet to relent on his support for these pipelines, seemingly waiting for the right moment to try to build them in other ways. During the campaign, he was given multiple opportunities in debates and public forums to recant on his support for more fracked gas, and he passed each and every time.

 So why does Baker continue to support gas expansion when facts, popular opinion, and commonsense point to not building more gas?

Perhaps he does not really appreciate the scale and severity of climate change, and thinks we have many decades to gradually address this mounting crisis. Or perhaps he is wedded to the antiquated belief that somehow gas is a climate-friendly transition fuel. But it is hard to rule out as a factor the disproportionate influence our state’s utilities and gas companies have over our political process.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to get rid of the specter of dirty energy money in our political system.

In the 2018 election, Baker’s general election opponent, Jay Gonzalez, pledged to not take money from fossil fuel companies or utilities, making it clear to voters that he would make decisions in the interests of the people’s health and welfare, not in the interests of the utilities or Big Gas. By comparison, Baker took hundreds of thousands of dollars from executives and lobbyists at oil and gas companies and the utilities.

Happily, Baker’s willingness to take such funds is proving increasingly anachronistic, as Massachusetts Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren join Gonzalez on top of a list of well over 100 political candidates in the state who have pledged not to take fossil fuel or utility money. While it is unclear when or if Baker might seek public office again, it would be a welcome step forward for him to join these other politicians in swearing off ties to the industry that has been fighting climate action tooth and nail for decades.

If Baker wants to secure a livable climate future for Massachusetts, he should sever financial ties with the fossil fuel industry and utilities, and publicly declare his strong opposition to any new gas projects in the Commonwealth.”

During the 2018 gubernatorial debates, Baker said that his second term would probably be remembered for “this climate issue,” and on that we agree. The question is, does he want to be remembered as the hero or the villain in this story? Baker needs to decide once and for all if he stands with the people of Massachusetts, or if he stands with polluters. Time for ambitious climate action is running out, and Baker needs to pick which side of history he wants to stand on.

Craig Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project and 350 Mass Action.


Energy discussion about natural gas is unrealistic

Rick Sullivan

A BRUTAL WINTER LAST YEAR saw New England burn more than 2 million barrels of oil to generate electricity.  September 3, 2018, when the temperature reached almost 100 degrees in Boston, power plants were forced to rely on large supplies of diesel oil just to meet the electricity demand to keep cool.  This winter, which hasn’t even been particularly cold or severe, once again saw power plants burn oil and coal because so much of our natural gas supply – which is limited by infrastructure bottlenecks – was needed for people to stay warm in a modest cold snap.

That should be enough to tell us that our current energy policy isn’t working very well for our environment, consumers, or our long-term economic development prospects.  But in just the last two months, utilities in completely different regions of the Commonwealth, serving the Holyoke Gas and Electric region and the Middleborough Gas and Electric area have been forced to implement natural gas hookup moratoriums.  They join an already existing moratorium affecting many western Massachusetts communities in the Berkshire Gas service territory.

These moratoria haven’t happened because we aren’t properly supporting renewable energy sources and their development in the Commonwealth.  It’s well documented that we are. As the Patrick Administration’s former energy and environment secretary, I am particularly proud of the national leadership role that Massachusetts fosters in this regard.

The problem is that we have allowed the discussion of our energy needs to migrate from the aspirational to the unrealistic.  We are a region very prone to changes in temperature and weather.  We consume an awful lot of energy when it is really warm and really cold. But because we are a Commonwealth with a great economy and expanding population, we still need a lot of energy, even on good days.

The recent natural gas hookup bans aren’t up for debate for those affected by them.  They are a market demand response to a demonstrable market supply problem.  And to be sure, all of us suffer.  The economy is taking a hit where they are in place, limiting jobs and economic opportunity.  Consumers and businesses that can’t hookup to gas for heating use oil instead, increasing their costs.   Emissions increase for all of us.

The Baker administration’s recently released Comprehensive Energy Plan shows that we are going to fall well short of the 25 percent emissions reductions target in 2020 that we committed to in the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008. The energy plan also has a lot to say about how far away we are now from achieving the law’s 2050 benchmarks and how, without huge progress in lowering emissions in the building (heating) and transportation (vehicle) sector, we have no chance of compliance.   This is a key reason these hookup bans should be raising concerns everywhere.  As they expand, and make no mistake without policy changes they will, our building sector will not just continue to generate more greenhouse gas emissions than almost anywhere else in the country, but rise, negating much if not all the benefit of renewable sources as they scale.   As a former regulator, I find this particularly disheartening.

So, what do we do? We can start by taking a closer look at the state’s energy plan, a serious, data-rich report that is a great resource for anyone trying to understand the magnitude of the challenge.   We’ve lowered our emissions greatly in the power generating sector, partly because we are increasing our renewable sources but also, ironically, by converting coal power plants to natural gas.  Meanwhile, transportation-related emissions have not improved much and now represent our largest source of carbon emissions. Large scale conversions to electric vehicles and lower carbon heating sources will go a long way toward bending the curve in those sectors and getting us back on track reducing emissions. But those solutions can only be realistically implemented with sufficient access to affordable and reliable energy to support that transition.

The question is whether we will continue to be ideologically rigid on the road to get there. Yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel.   But that doesn’t make it oil or coal.  It’s much lower emitting, in addition to being abundant and inexpensive in much of the US – but we have to be able to get it here to use it. While the Commonwealth has made tremendous progress increasing its commitment to solar and wind, to date, state leaders have refused to budge on expanding access to natural gas. That’s unfortunate, as even former president Obama’s energy secretary Ernest Moniz—an MIT scientist—recognized meeting our climate targets requires using every low carbon source we have, including natural gas, to replace the high emitting sources that renewables alone cannot address now or anytime soon.

The time has come for us to forge a practical, not ideological, way forward. Our failure to reach our 2020 emissions goals should be a warning shot to anyone who cares about our planet and our families. We have no time to waste.

Rick Sullivan is CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. From 2011 to 2015, he served as state secretary of energy and environmental affairs. Previously, he was the mayor of Westfield.


Moratoriums on gas hookups are a good thing

Kathryn Eiseman

ARE GAS PIPELINE CAPACITY constraints ever desirable? Yes, if you want to incentivize energy solutions that are preferable to natural gas. This is the lens through which to view the moratoria on new gas hookups recently announced by municipal utilities in Holyoke and Middleborough.

Unfortunately, the shale gas boom about ten years ago led Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) to discontinue its district heating service rather than modernize with sustainable district energy. The heating side of HG&E – now exclusively a gas division – is, like other gas utilities, working against the Commonwealth’s “reduce, electrify, and decarbonize” climate strategies for the heating sector. Specifically, HG&E is teaming up with Columbia Gas and Kinder Morgan to bring more gas infrastructure to the area.

The pipeline expansion plan is jarring to people familiar with HG&E’s electric division, which was just ranked the number three municipal utility for clean energy achievements in the Commonwealth. (Notably, HG&E still showed substantial room for improvement – particularly on the energy efficiency front – scoring only 70% overall.) In addition to using hydropower from the Connecticut River, HG&E has just built utility-scale battery storage to complement the largest community solar project.

“We have an ambition of being a carbon-neutral community,” Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has said. But expanding gas infrastructure is misguided as a decarbonization measure – resulting in only a ⅓ reduction in CO2 emissions from combustion as compared to oil, without accounting for the highly potent greenhouse gas emissions from methane leaks and intentional releases at compressor stations, meter and regulator stations, and fracking sites.

While moratoria on gas hookups are already widespread in the Pioneer Valley, the rest of the Commonwealth generally associates the pipeline capacity constraint mantra with complaints about electricity winter price spikes and oil usage by power generators (although during this winter’s cold snaps, we have not relied heavily on oil for power generation.)

Our regional grid operator, ISO New England, still relies heavily on fossil-fuel-fired electric generation – primarily natural gas, distributed via the same pipeline network that delivers gas to homes and businesses for heat and industrial purposes. Because pipeline expansion is usually financed by gas utilities (and ultimately their ratepayers), ISO New England has been antsy about making sure that ample pipeline capacity is available for the electric power generators to burn gas, even while climate realities push the states to mandate an increasing percentage of power generation from renewable sources.

For years, ISO New England CEO Gordon Van Welie has been the functional captain of the gas pipeline cheerleading squad, saying we need to “overbuild” the pipeline system to ensure gas is available to burn at all times. So when Mr. Van Welie said earlier this month “we’re going to have to work with what we have” for gas infrastructure, it seemed unlikely that he was really throwing up his hands in surrender. Van Welie may just be letting others carry the torch for new pipelines.

Remember “Plan B for a pipeline”? In 2016, the Baker administration’s attempt to have electric utilities force their ratepayers to fund gas pipelines went down in legal flames. In the wake of that defeat, Secretary of Energy & Environment Matt Beaton seemed to “say the quiet part out loud” when he discussed a Plan B” that would have gas ratepayers funding more capacity than the gas utilities actually need, so that the excess capacity would be available to power generators.

This workaround might appease Van Welie, but its own legality is dubious given the unnecessary costs and financial risks it puts on the backs of gas ratepayers. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that Operation Plan B is underway:

  • Columbia Gas has received DPU approval to finance expansion by Kinder Morgan that would, among other things, run an additional pipeline near a power generator in Agawam. This expansion is part of the five-part Columbia Gas “reliability” plan that would bring more gas capacity to Holyoke, running a new six mile pipeline through West Springfield, as well as more capacity to Columbia Gas’ Greater Springfield service area.
  • Liberty Utilities in New Hampshire is seeking authorization to construct a major new pipeline and LNG facility, and has specified that it will build excess capacity to serve a power generator.
  • National Grid’s gas utility has been pursuing its own small expansions and has also systematically tied up a large number of institutional customers that have dual-fuel capability, such as hospitals and colleges, in special contracts that commit the customers to use exclusively gas. This means that at times of peak demand, the pipelines are fuller than they would otherwise be, which helps lay the groundwork for a new pipeline proposal.
  • Eversource previouly signed up for an even 50,000 Dekatherms/day of new capacity from the Enbridge Atlantic Bridge pipeline project. Some of that capacity has not materialized because it hinges on the elusive Weymouth compressor station, but Eversource seems to be doing fine without it.
  • Middleborough Gas & Electric is currently in negotiations with Enbridge regarding a potential capacity increase. Such a project could ultimately involve Eversource, National Grid, and Columbia Gas, which all provide gas to neighboring communities.

While there may not be one big pipeline on the table at this point, all the pieces could add up to a significant increase in pipeline capacity. Pipelines built today can be expected to last for multiple generations, far past when anyone might pretend that natural gas is a “bridge fuel”.

Climate concerns aside, Columbia Gas has shown in stark relief that over-reliance on natural gas is folly. What will become of that company after the Merrimack Valley disaster is anyone’s guess, but Holyoke tying its future to the success of prospective Columbia Gas pipeline expansion seems a major misstep on all counts.

The City of Holyoke has the opportunity to lead the way by investing in not just renewable energy for electricity, but district energy, energy efficiency, and electrification of the heating sector. House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s newly announced GreenWorks Resilient Communities Investment Plan proposal has the potential to help communities like Holyoke make a break with investments in fossil fuel infrastructure for good.

Meet the Author

Craig Altemose

Executive Director, Better Future Project
Meet the Author

Rick Sullivan

President and CEO, Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council
Meet the Author

Kathryn R. Eiseman

President, Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc.
Meanwhile, ISO New England cannot forestall the heavy lifting involved in integrating renewables into the grid any longer. Let those capacity constraints be the mothers of invention and innovation.

Kathryn R. Eiseman is the director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network and president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast, Inc.