N.E.'s Six Governors Get Pushback On Energy Plan

Environmentalists say more pipelines and power lines aren’t the answer. They want to know why energy efficiency and renewables aren’t part of the "closed” discussions.

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Environmentalists across New England are stepping up criticism of an effort led by the region's six governors to build high-capacity power lines and natural gas pipelines. Since a regional agreement was announced in January, pleas have escalated for more transparency and public say in deciding new ratepayer-funded energy projects.

Most recently, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) found that correspondences between the states and the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) have been done in private. According to a CLF, the documents show “not only outright hostility to conducting the planning process in the open, but also a troubling willingness on the part of state officials to take enormous risks with our money, our region’s energy progress and our climate.”

CLF says NESCOE documents reveal, among many apparent conflicts of interest, that much of the planning so far has been done in private with representatives from pipeline and utility companies. In one e-mail, three pipeline companies proposed helping structure contracts for new projects.

"Rather than relying on the region’s competitive markets, painstakingly created to avoid saddling the public with the results of uneconomic investment by energy companies, the governors are largely abandoning those markets in favor of their private deals to obligate billions in customer money,” the CLF report concluded.

NESCOE didn't reply to ecoRI News' requests for comment. But questions are mounting from groups such as the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and No Fracked Gas in Mass that oppose the 250-mile Northeast Expansion Project, from Wright, N.Y., to Dracut, being proposed by the Houston-based company Kinder Morgan. This section of the line would become part of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Energy Direct Project, and would deliver high-pressure natural gas from fracking fields in Pennsylvania.

Opponents claim the proposed pipeline would threaten sensitive habitats and would emit high levels of greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions. They propose replacing the pipeline by expanding energy-efficiency programs and building more renewable-energy systems.

"The main thing they need to do is a study to see how we get from here to there without a natural gas pipeline,” said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team.

In Rhode Island, the General Assembly recently passed the Affordable Clean Energy Securities Act, which empowers the Division of Public Utilities Commission to represent the state in the regional effort to build more natural gas pipelines and increase the capacity for those that already exist.

CLF and the Green Party of Rhode Island are seeking a public hearing to address the proposed expansion of the Algonquin natural gas pipeline. Houston-based Spectra energy owns the 61-year-old pipeline and plans to add about 30 miles of extensions and increase pressure to bring more natural gas from New Jersey to Boston. CLF and the Green Party are also urging the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to review plans to boost the pressure and volume of gas at the pipeline's compressor station in Burrillville.

The DEM says it is not required to hold a public hearing for what it classifies as a "minor source permit application." A review of impacts on air quality will be completed in six to eight months.

The plan poses “unknown risks of air and water pollution, explosions, forest fires and soil contamination in one of our state’s most pristine and most appreciated natural environments,” said Tony Affigne, chair of the Green Party of Rhode Island.

Marylee Hanley, Sprectra’s director of stakeholder outreach, said the project complies with emission regulations set by the Federal Department of Transportation. “We manage our facilities to be start-of-the-art,” she said.

Hanley declined to specify the emissions released from the compressor station and the chemicals flowing through the pipeline. Spectra, she said, would likely attend a public hearing if invited.

Nick Ucci, chief of staff for the state's Office of Energy Resources, said Rhode Island needs more natural gas in order to meet increasing demand and reduce costs on energy bills, especially during winter when reliance on natural gas spikes to meet heating needs. Last winter, he said, New England burned 2.7 million extra barrels of oil due to low availability of natural gas.

”It was pretty bad,” Ucci said. “We don’t want to rely on oil. It’s the least environmentally friendly of our options.”

Some environmentalist dispute claims that natural gas is cleaner than oil and coal, especially when methane leaks are included in the calculation.

"We don't know if these pipelines are even necessary," said Daniel Sosland, president of the Maine-based environmental advocacy group ENE. The group recently submitted a letter of concern from 100 businesses, consumer groups, academics and organizations to New England's governors, raising concerns about proposals to invest billions of ratepayers’ dollars in new natural gas pipelines before considering potential alternatives.

"Without comparing the cost and benefits of new pipelines to clean energy alternatives, there is no way to know if this publicly funded project makes sense for the region," Sosland said.

To date, states have analyzed the costs and benefits of meeting the region’s energy needs with a limited number of mostly supply-side alternatives: new pipelines, imports of hydroelectricity from Canada, liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, demand-response, and power plants capable of burning oil or natural gas. Aside from the latter two, none of these alternatives were looked at in combination, and the potential for reducing natural gas demand through energy efficiency and combined heat and power wasn’t quantified at all, according to ENE.

“States themselves have acknowledged that clean-energy alternatives could reduce or avoid the need for new infrastructure,” said Peter Shattuck, ENE’s director of market initiatives. “We could be committing billions of public dollars to pipelines that will increase our reliance on fossil fuels and shift investment risk from private companies onto electric ratepayers. Before the states make that commitment, we need a transparent public discussion about utilizing all available options to meet our energy needs.”