By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Efforts are underway to bring more natural gas and hydropower to New England as the region’s six governors are urging the construcion of more gas pipelines and power lines to meet growing energy demand. Environmental groups, however, believe renewable energy and energy efficiency should fill the need.
In Rhode Island, House and Senate committees have approved bills that allow the state to join its New England neighbors to collectively promote and approve new natural gas pipelines and power lines that bring hydropower from Canada.
According to the legislation, the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) grants approval of any new projects. To ensure that state energy and renewable-energy goals and greenhouse gas emission requirements are followed the Office of Energy Resources and the Department of Environmental Management offer advisory opinions on any proposals. Ratepayers would fund the projects.
At a June 12 Senate hearing, Kate Brock, Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s legislative liaison, said any proposed projects would receive extensive public vetting. The state is not bound to participate in any project or accept any energy, she said. “The legislation does not lock us into anything.”
There would be no “over building” of natural gas pipelines, she said. “We’re properly sizing it to the region’s need.” Brock also described an ongoing dire energy situation in Rhode Island caused by a lack of natural gas and subsequent price spikes.
Sen. William Walaska, D-Warwick, said the bill addresses price volatility and reduces electric bills by simply bringing in more natural gas and hydropower. “We’re trying to do collectively something we can’t do as a single state," he said.
Jamie Rhodes, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), a coalition of 60 local groups, said the regional energy effort is already making a push for more natural gas without adequate public input. “It hasn't been entirely transparent to this point," he said.
ECRI opposes the bills because they represent an increase in fossil-fuel use rather than making greater investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Rhode Island has one pipeline project already drawing critics. As part of its Algonquin Incremental Market project, Texas-based Spectra Energy plans to expand high-pressure pumps along a gas pipeline that runs through Burrillville. The pipeline is widely expected to deliver natural gas from fracking sites in Pennsylvania to liquified natural gas refineries in Canada.
“When people realize that Rhode Island bears the risk and the cost, but enjoys few of the pipeline’s benefits,” said Tony Affigne, chair of the Rhode Island Green Party, “local leaders will have all the reason they need to turn against the project, and join the opposition."
A proposed 250-mile extension of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline would run through the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Several communities oppose the project because of pollution concerns and the increased reliance on natural gas from fracking.
The $2 billion-plus pipeline proposal was initiated by all six New England governors. The New England States Committee on Electricity, a group formed by the New England governors, issued a report in March saying the region needs another 600 million cubic feet per day of natural gas on top of the new pipeline to meet demand.
The environmental advocacy group ENE says the energy demand can be met through a combination of more efficient energy trading markets, more renewable energy, use of liquefied natural gas, combined heat and power systems, and energy efficiency.
“It’s very clear to us that an assessment of the alternatives has not been done,” said Abigail Anthony, director of ENE’s Rhode Island office.
Both bills are expected to head to the full House and Senate this week.