What’s behind the pipeline debate in governor’s race?

Q: Why are the two candidates running for governor, Democrat Maura Healey and Republican Geoff Diehl, arguing about natural gas pipelines that never got built? 

A: It’s actually a very interesting issue, and one that goes to the heart of an ongoing and important debate about the best way to keep the lights on in Massachusetts and across New England while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: What’s the debate about?

A: In broad terms, the debate is about the best way to wean the state and region off of fossil fuels. One side says we must move as quickly as possible given the pace of climate change. Those who hold this view don’t want new fossil fuel infrastructure built and want to phase out the existing infrastructure as fast as they can. A good example of this philosophy was the Legislature’s vote earlier this year to launch a pilot program allowing 10 communities to ban fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction.

Q: What’s the other point of view?

A: The other side also wants to reduce reliance on fossil fuels but argues that we should do so in a way that doesn’t lead to market disruptions – higher prices, for example, or energy shortages, which could be caused by a too-rapid transition.

Q: So what’s this pipeline issue Healey and Diehl keep talking about?

A: In 2015, there was an effort to build additional natural gas pipeline capacity into New England. There was then and still continues to be concern about a possible shortage of natural gas for electricity generation during extended cold periods in the winter. ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator, has repeatedly raised concerns about shortages, and even warned that rolling brownouts are possible.

Q: Have brownouts ever happened?

A: No, they haven’t. But several times during extended cold periods power plants that run on natural gas have run short of fuel and the power grid has been forced to rely more on power generated from coal and oil. That happened during the winter of 2017-2018, when the region came dangerously close to brownouts. In January, higher prices for natural gas on world markets also prompted a shift to cheaper coal and oil. In both cases, consumers paid more for electricity and emissions increased because of use of dirtier fuels.

Q: Why don’t the electric power generators just buy more natural gas?

A: The current market structure gives them no incentive to sign longer-term contracts for gas, so they buy excess gas from pipelines that supply natural gas utilities that in turn sell the fuel to homeowners and businesses for heat. This arrangement works well most of the year, but during extended cold periods, when the demand for gas for heat increases, there is occasionally a shortage of gas for electricity generation.

Q: What was the proposed solution in 2015?

A: The Baker administration came up with the novel idea of having electric utilities sign long-term natural gas contracts, which could be leveraged by pipeline operators to build additional pipeline capacity into the region. The arrangement, at least in theory, was supposed to give power generators using natural gas a steady supply of fuel and keep electricity prices low enough to offset the cost of the long-term contracts. The state Department of Public Utilities approved the plan.

Q: What happened then?

A: The Conservation Law Foundation sued, arguing that state law did not allow electric utilities to purchase natural gas on behalf of their customers. Attorney General Maura Healey filed an amicus brief in the case, which went before the Supreme Judicial Court.

Q: How did the court rule?

A: The court agreed with Healey and the Conservation Law Foundation. The 2016 decision had nothing to do with climate change or energy strategy. It was based on a reading of what the law did and did not allow.

Q: Did Healey see the decision as more than a legal victory?

A: Yes, she believed it had much broader ramifications. With financial support from the Barr Foundation and John Merck Fund, she commissioned a study in 2015 that concluded Massachusetts and the region did not need more natural gas pipelines and could make it until 2030 without running short of electricity. “This study demonstrates that we do not need increased gas capacity to meet electric reliability needs, and that electric ratepayers shouldn’t foot the bill for additional pipelines,” Healey said at the time. “This study demonstrates that a much more cost-effective solution is to embrace energy efficiency and demand response programs that protect ratepayers and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Q: Electricity prices are going up dramatically now, with National Grid saying many of its customers will see a 62 percent increase in their monthly bills starting next month. Diehl traces that increase to Healey’s decision in 2015 to block new pipelines. Is he correct?

A: It’s hard to say. Diehl is correct that the lack of additional pipeline capacity means we are probably paying more for the natural gas we consume, which is why electric and heating bills are rising. It’s also true that the war in Ukraine has destabilized world energy markets and sent prices worldwide for natural gas soaring. In short, prices would be going up anyway, but the lack of pipeline capacity isn’t helping.

Q: Will we have enough natural gas this winter to keep homes warm and electricity generators running?

A: It depends on the weather. An extended cold snap could pose serious problems. If that happens, Healey’s stance in 2015 could come back to haunt her.

Q: When will this uncertainty about winter gas supplies end?

A: The key is bringing more renewables on to the power grid, which would reduce the need for power produced using natural gas. Offshore wind farms were supposed to be up and running by now, but they’ve been delayed. Hydroelectric power from Canada was also supposed to be flowing into the region, but it’s been stalled by neighboring states unwilling to play host to the transmission lines.

Q: So who’s right, Healey or Diehl? 

A: That’s a tough question to answer. Their political debate is part of a much broader debate in New England that won’t really end until the region transitions away from fossil fuels.




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