Politicians Pushing for More Natural Gas

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

With new administrations come renewed efforts to bring more natural gas to New England. Less than a week in office, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has mentioned natural-gas expansion several times, including while he attended Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Jan. 6 inauguration.

During a recent visit to western Massachusetts, Baker was quoted in The Berkshire Eagle chiding state politicians for not acting sooner to bring more natural gas to the region.

“I don't know why the commonwealth didn't expand some of its existing pipeline capacity three or four years ago,” Baker is quoted. “In 2010, everybody knew that there was going to be a tremendous amount of supply coming out of Pennsylvania, New York and other places. At that point, if you had delivery capacity, it (would) drive down the price of consumption. For whatever reason, they didn't do it.”

In 2013, then-Gov. Deval Patrick did sign onto a six-state agreement to expand energy infrastructure in the region. Last year, however, he delayed taking action on the agreement. The Massachusetts Legislature also didn’t advance legislation that would give the state the official authority to advance new energy transmission projects and new fees to pay for them.

Some of Baker’s recent appointments to top energy posts point to an intention of bringing more natural gas and out-of-state electricity production to the state. Angela O’Connor was appointed chairwoman of the state Department of Public Utilities. She represented several fossil-fuel companies while head of the trade organization New England Power Generators Association.

Ron Gerwatowski, a 28-year employee with National Grid, will serve as assistant secretary for energy under Matthew Beaton, the top energy and environmental official in Baker’s administration. Gerwatowski worked on utility rates, energy pricing and energy policy while at the utility.

In Rhode Island, the General Assembly passed the Affordable Clean Energy Securities Act last year. The legislation enables National Grid to propose new electric, natural gas and hydropower transmission initiatives, and the fees to pay for them, to the Division of Public Utilities Commission.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has been meeting regularly with state energy officials and National Grid to express his concern about a recent electric rate hike and the need to expand natural-gas pipeline capacity, a spokesman said. He also is trying to meet with Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo to collaborate on those efforts.

“In addition to the increase in energy costs, (Mattiello) believes the increased consumption of natural gas and our need to expand our pipeline capacity is critical to solving the issue,” said Larry Berman, the speaker’s director of communications.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has yet to formally announce her energy plans. In a statement from her office, Raimondo offered a commitment to both renewable energy and bringing more natural gas to the state.

“Governor Raimondo recognizes that better protecting the environment is not only the right thing to do, it is also an economic driver,” wrote Ashley Gingerella O’Shea, Raimondo’s deputy director of communications in an e-mail to ecoRI News.

On the subject of natural gas, O’Shea wrote, “Rhode Island and Massachusetts are facing unsustainable double-digit electricity rate increases and have the common need to look at ways to increase energy supply, particularly when it comes to natural gas. Governor Raimondo looks forward to working with others, including Governor Baker, on a strategy to keep energy costs down.”

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Office of the General Treasury is putting together Raimondo’s campaign promise of a green bank. Green banks have launched in New York and Connecticut in recent years as public-private lenders for renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and green-infrastructure projects.

In his final week in office, Patrick approved a solar loan program for residential solar installations and for participants in community-shared solar projects.