Gas Pipeline Project Being Pushed from Both Sides

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Both sides on the natural gas-pipeline debate are pushing ahead on the issue.

Gov. Charlie Baker wants the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to investigate how utility companies can buy more natural-gas contracts, which, in turn, helps finance construction of natural-gas pipelines.

In an April 2 letter, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources states, “Pipelines also are not willing to build new capacity without having long-term contracts in place. Hence, there has been insufficient assurance for pipeline companies to take the steps necessary to build capacity for natural gas-fired electric generators, despite the increasing natural gas demand for heating and as a source of supply for electric power in Massachusetts and New England.”

The letter tells the state utility regulators that action is needed to ease price spikes brought on by the high demand for winter heating. Home heating has priority over natural gas used for fueling electric plants. And as area coal and nuclear plants shut down, natural gas is taking up the slack. All of which is increasing calls across the Northeast for more capacity — natural-gas pipelines.

A new pipeline planned by Kinder Morgan across northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, and the expansion of Spectra Energy’s Algonquin pipeline through Connecticut, Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts are expected to ease the crunch.

Since he took office, Baker has called for an energy summit among New England governors to advocate moving forward on these projects and explain how they would be funded.

But other voices are saying more natural gas isn’t the simple solution. On his last day in office, Gov. Deval Patrick released a report offering several scenarios for meeting future energy needs and easing price volatility. The report suggested more natural-gas pipelines for the region but also noted that the quantity needed is well below the volume proposed in current pipeline plans. The new influx of the fossil fuel also makes it hard for the state to meet its greenhouse-gas reduction targets, according to the report.

Opponents say this heavy reliance on natural gas makes electric and gas bills more vulnerable to price increases, not less. There’s also evidence that new pipelines and expansion projects are being built to export the natural gas through Canada.

If that happens, the environmental impacts are simply shifted elsewhere, said Kathryn Eiseman, president of the anti-pipeline group, Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc. “It’s a disaster from a climate perspective. Even though the gas isn’t being burned here it’s being burned somewhere else.”

Political opposition is also gaining momentum. On April 2, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to hold new hearings, after the agency’s March 3 approval of the Algonquin pipeline project.

This request came shortly after Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and other Massachusetts elected officials called for new public meetings.

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council also recently sent notice to FERC, explaining that a section of its Atlantic Bridge pipeline project in Little Compton, R.I., will require a coastal wetlands review.