Northeast is Tar Sands Free, but for How Long?

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The Northeast is virtually free of tar-sands gas, the production of which causes 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally manufactured fossil fuels, but environmentalists fear this pollution-heavy fuel could soon flood the local market.

Last month at a U.S. Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review Task Force meeting in Hartford, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told those gathered that New England faces serious infrastructure limitations in meeting the region’s energy needs. He warned those constraints could lead to prices that are volatile and higher. He noted the need for additional pipelines.

This growing call to develop new pipelines includes the proposed Northeast Expansion project, which would transport hydrofracked natural gas through 250 miles of interstate pipeline from Wright, N.Y., to Dracut, Mass.

Spectra Energy Corp. has proposed a major expansion of the Algonquin pipeline to transport fracked natural gas through Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A Montreal company wants to transport tar-sands oil to the Atlantic Coast. Enbridge, Canada’s largest pipeline company, has plans to link to that line and carry Alberta crude east. TransCanada Corp., the company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, wants to pipe tar-sands oil to refineries that supply fuel to the Northeast.

In response to these “dirty” energy plans, civic and business leaders in Massachusetts have called on Gov. Deval Patrick to block this looming invasion of tar sands-derived fuels. They say if these fuels are used in gasoline and home-heating oil it would worsen the state’s carbon pollution and hasten climate change.

A January report by the Natural Resources Defense Council highlighted the fact that tar sands could grow to 11 percent of the region’s fuel supply by 2020, and as much as 18 percent if the 1,176-mile Keystone XL pipeline were built.

At an event held last month at the Lenox Hotel in Boston, the Conservation Law Foundation, Better Future Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council urged Patrick to continue supporting clean-energy solutions, so Massachusetts could stay a leader in the effort to mitigate climate change.

The New England Chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs recently wrote to Patrick, calling on him to reject tar sands and track the sources and carbon intensity of fuels in the state. It’s a policy the Conservation Law Foundation supports, according to Jennifer Rushlow, a staff attorney for CLF Massachusetts.

“We need to track and report what fuels we have in the region,” she said. “We know on a macro level, but there’s no mechanism to track how much of these fuels we are using. We need to have this information.”

For the public to acquire this information, Massachusetts, or any other state, would need to pass legislation. It’s doubtful fossil-fuel corporations would supply such information voluntarily.

The New England Chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs and the CLF both also believe Massachusetts needs to enact an “anti-backsliding” policy that would ensure the state’s fuel supply doesn’t become more carbon intensive.

This type of policy is similar to the regional clean-fuels effort 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states began discussing several years ago. Those discussions have since quieted, though, as big industry flexes it political and financial muscle to push for the expansion of tar-sand pipelines.

In late 2009, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania began thinking of developing a Clean Fuels Standard (CFS). The idea was to create a policy modeled on California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, which requires oil refiners and suppliers to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel mix by 10 percent by 2020 and to continue to improve their emissions profile over time.

Environmental advocates support such a regional CFS. They see it as a technology-neutral policy that would create a market for cleaner transportation fuels. The CFS would discourage investment in high-carbon fuels made from tar sands, oil shale and liquid coal.

But with New Jersey and New Hampshire backing out of the initiative, and Maine opting to continue to participate but not to apply the standards to its own transportation sector, the focus has turned to a less-aggressive anti-backsliding policy. Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland are working together in hopes of becoming leaders in this movement.

Advocates of anti-backsliding and fuel tracking say these measures would help mitigate climate-changing pollution and spur the market for renewable energy. Instead of spending some $2 billion on the Massachusetts section of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, environmentalists believe that money should be spent installing rooftop solar systems and funding renewable-energy infrastructure.

“The threat of climate change deserves our full attention,” said Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, who chairs the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “We need to pursue policies that prevent high-carbon fuels like tar sands from impacting the transportation sector in Massachusetts, and instead invest in supporting cleaner fuel technologies, which bring economic, health and environmental benefits.”

Already this year, more than 5,000 Massachusetts residents have written to Patrick, asking him to draw a line in the sand against one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet.

“Now is the time ... to support only policies that will boost clean, renewable fuels, and keep tar sands out of Massachusetts,” said Craig Altemose, executive director of the Better Future Project. “A sudden influx of tar sands into our state would undermine Gov. Patrick’s own efforts to encourage the use of fuel-efficient vehicles.”

Rushlow said increased tar-sands fuels in the region would create an additional 10 million metric tons of carbon pollution — enough to negate most of the carbon reductions under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. She also said the addition of tar-sand fuels would hamper achieving emissions reductions as required by the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.

“Massachusetts has made recent gains in reducing carbon pollution from the transportation sector, but unless we take action to keep tar-sands fuels out of our gas tanks, that progress will be wiped out,” Rushlow said.