What’s up with the Globe and natural gas?

Paper has adopted panic policy of utilities, grid operator

GIVEN THE LONG HISTORY of the Boston Globe’s editorial board advocacy for consumers and the environment, including its current strong criticism of regulation rollbacks by the Trump administration, it is puzzling to see the paper crusading for new natural gas pipelines that rigorous studies say we do not need, are outrageously expensive, and harm the environment and the climate.

On April 21 the Globe published its seventh editorial of 2018 essentially promoting the construction of multi-billion-dollar pipelines to ship fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania. Consumers would ultimately pay the cost in both their bills and climate damages.

The editorials are unusual not just for their frequency, but for rhetoric that could charitably be described as overwrought, harshly scapegoating environmentalists and Beacon Hill for allegedly killing the Access Northeast pipeline. For example, pipeline opponents have been accused of unwittingly aiding Russian exports to the US of liquified natural gas, circumventing economic sanctions, destroying fragile Arctic habitats, killing baby seals, and foisting higher fuel bills on the poor.

The Globe depicts opposition to ratepayer financing of pipelines as opposition to any use of natural gas. The price spikes during cold snaps of a few days every few years have been presented as permanent and immutable problems and the deployment of old coal-fired and oil-fired plants during these brief spells has been depicted as spewing unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The actual story is much different. While both Beacon Hill and environmentalists worked against Access Northeast, ultimately common sense deserves the most credit. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously in 2016 that a ratepayer-financing scheme advanced by the Department of Public Utilities for the Access Northeast project was unreasonable, as it would “shift the entire risk of the investment to the ratepayers.”

The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission similarly ruled that a pipeline tax on consumers was “inconsistent” with state law. Prior to that, a study commissioned by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey concluded that New England “is unlikely to face electric reliability issues in the next 15 years and additional energy needs can be met more cheaply and cleanly through energy efficiency and demand response.” Healey has long been concerned that locking consumers into 20 years of paying for pipelines is a “gamble” that may foreclose ratepayers from taking advantage of cleaner and cheaper energy technologies that may develop during that time, and that overreliance on gas will defeat the state’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To date, the Globe has offered no rigorous studies to counter either the illegality of prior proposed schemes or the actual lack of urgency to construct them. Instead, for unclear reasons, it adopted the panic playbook of the region’s biggest for-profit utilities, Eversource and National Grid, and regional grid operator ISO New England, the latter of which is supposed to be neutral but has long been complaining of pipeline “constraints.”

Healey and others, using real data, have concluded that Massachusetts’ nation-leading efforts on energy efficiency, along with faster transition to renewable energy than many anticipated—such as the state-mandated influx of hydroelectric and offshore wind power—renders the need to invest in pipelines a folly. A report by the Synapse Group commissioned by several environmental groups found that natural gas use is on track to plummet by 27 percent in the next five years, and by 41 percent by 2030. While that report was commissioned by environmental groups, readers should be clear that Synapse does independent analysis for industry and government as well.

It is odd to see the Globe take a leading role in trying to revive pipelines when, at the moment, there is literally nothing to act on. Access Northeast has been shelved for lack of investor interest in financing it. Not a single piece of legislation has been filed to overrule the SJC decision. There were price spikes during extreme cold spells this January, but they were short in duration.

More odd still was that for all of the Globe’s concern about Arctic wildlife from Russian gas exploitation, the editorials were silent on the environmental harms of natural gas production here at home. They include the heat-trapping properties of methane, the main component of “natural” gas, as well as earthquakes caused by wastewater injection and the emerging body of neurological and respiratory harm to human beings who live near fracking operations, especially children and pregnant mothers, from exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and particulate matter.

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
Why the domestic dangers have not gotten in the way of the Globe’s narrative is mysterious, especially as new pipelines are likely to devolve into a stranded asset that, according to Synapse, will cost $6.6 billion. It would have been preferable to see the Globe focus on this than camp out on a sinking fossil-fuel island with the big utilities. Fortunately, Massachusetts’ highest court , the attorney general, and the New Hampshire’s utilities commission have kept the debate on a much higher ground for consumers.

Craig S. Altemose is the senior advisor of 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future, a statewide volunteer-led network of climate activists advancing sane climate policy in Massachusetts.