Proposed Pipeline Expansion Could Cut Through R.I.

By ROWAN SHARP/ecoRI News contributor

A new natural gas pipeline, still in the evaluation phase, may bring natural gas from Pennsylvania to southern New England, possibly through Rhode Island. The pipeline would be built by the Houston-based natural gas company Spectra Energy Corp., a parent company of the Algonquin Gas Transmission, which has contracts with National Grid in Rhode Island.

An existing Algonquin pipeline currently cuts through the northwestern corner of Rhode Island, carrying fuel extracted from the Marcellus and Utica gas fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, to as far north as Massachusetts.

Spectra outlined its extensions to the project as “located in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York,” but a spokesman for National Grid said recently that “we’re not sure if the path of the pipeline would run through Rhode Island.” The state Office of Energy Resources hasn’t responded to a request made last month for more information.

The southern New England extensions will cost Spectra about $500 million to build; if permitting moves forward smoothly, they could come online in late 2015. The pipeline is part of a substantial shift in energy usage in the region. According to Spectra, natural gas-fired electric generation has increased from 15 percent to 52 percent of total electric energy production in New England.

Spectra touts its natural gas as “the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel.” New England pays more for natural gas than any other region in the United States — an argument, according to the corporation, for increased supply and access to natural gas through these proposed pipelines. But the dark side of natural gas, especially its extraction through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” continually surfaces in the news, with reports of poisoned families and damaged water supplies.

Feeding the southern New England pipeline is a 12-billion-cubic-foot underground natural gas storage facility in Clearville, Pa., built after local residents unsuccessfully fought Spectra’s eminent domain claims for two years. One resident, Mike Bernard, founded the group Spectra Energy Watch, which monitors and reports on the company’s land use, safety record and interactions with stakeholders.

Bernard notes that in 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined Spectra $15 million for the discharge of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at 89 sites on a Texas-New Jersey pipeline route — the seventh-highest civil penalty in EPA history.

Concerns about Spectra’s pipeline safety persist today, with 17 safety violations in 2011, according to Natural Gas Watch. Last year, concern over Spectra’s pipeline safety also lead to the shutdown of a Texas elementary school.

Living near Spectra’s Clearville storage facility, Bernard says, is a struggle; his neighbors deal with industrial waste discharges, “oily mist” is in the air, and water contamination has lead some to stop using their wells and resort to bought and bottled water. Bernard claims that Spectra has refused to conduct some environmental testing requested by local residents, and has failed to report toxic releases to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection within the time frame required by law.

Whether Spectra gets the go-ahead for its New England expansion, the company is increasing its regional hold. On June 29, Spectra confirmed that it had received permission from the Federal Energy Resources Commission (FERC) to move forward with its 20-mile New Jersey-New York expansion project. Though this pipeline, which will transport 800 million cubic feet of natural gas daily, is a relatively short one it’s been long on conflict.

Jersey City Mayor Jeremiah Healy and the City Council unanimously opposed the project, alongside organized citizen groups, claiming that safety risks outweighed the benefits, according to published reports. The pipeline, however, is expected to come online in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Here in New England, Occupy Boston has lead the opposition to Spectra’s proposed expansions. The Massachusetts organizers site a new study by climatologist Ken Caldeira saying that replacing other fossil fuels with natural gas “cannot reduce climate risk substantially in the next 100 years.”