Southern N.E.'s Fossil-Fuel Infrastructure Builds Up

Several natural-gas projects have been built or are moving ahead in the Access Northeast plan. (Enbridge Inc.)

Several natural-gas projects have been built or are moving ahead in the Access Northeast plan. (Enbridge Inc.)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The Burrillville, R.I., power plant may have been derailed but there is still plenty of new and proposed natural-gas infrastructure in southern New England.

The debate over expanding pipelines and related equipment occurs nearly every winter following cold spells that increase demand for the natural gas flowing through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

The big appetite for the fossil fuel is due in part to New England’s rapid transition from coal and oil power to natural gas, increasing its share of electricity generation from 15 percent in 2000 to 48 percent in 2017. Rhode Island generates 93 percent of its in-state electricity from natural gas. Massachusetts generates 67 percent of its power from natural gas.

With more power plants running on natural gas and more homes and businesses heating with it, there is less of the fossil fuel to go around during the coldest of winter days. During the frigid winter of 2013-14 supply was so low that natural-gas prices hit record highs and standby power plants in New Hampshire ran on jet fuel to meet demand.

The solution, according to the fossil-fuel industry and its advocacy groups, is to increase the flow of “cheap” natural gas extracted from the Marcellus shale fracking region of Pennsylvania to southern New England. To do so, they say, New England needs new and bigger pipelines, storage facilities, and compressor stations to push the gas along.

This past winter also had cold spells but, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, supply and prices were tamed by timely shipments of LNG to terminals in Boston, Everett, Mass., and the port of Saint John in New Brunswick.

Environmentalists want a similar energy transition, but from fossil fuels to renewable energy and energy-reducing programs. All six New England states have goals to lower greenhouse-gas emissions and mandates for ramping up renewable-energy use. Natural gas is unsafe and increases pollution and climate emissions, according to opponents.

ISO New England, the operator of the six-state power grid and forecaster of energy needs, has recently started to recognize the transformation from large conventional power plants to a hybrid power system made up of many smaller “distributed generation” energy producers. This new system includes a mix of renewables, energy-storage systems, energy-efficiency programs, electric vehicles, and the adoption of the so-called “smart” electric grid.

But ISO New England has yet to abandon its enthusiasm for natural-gas infrastructure.

“To keep the lights on, efficient, fast-start natural gas power plants will continue to be required, and solutions to the region’s natural gas constraints will be needed,” ISO New England said in its 2019 Regional Electricity Outlook released in March.

The proposed Clear River Energy Center was one such fast-start natural-gas power plant. But the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board rejected the project in June, saying a nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant isn’t needed to meet the region’s current and future electricity supply.

Two weeks earlier, however, the Connecticut Siting Council made the opposite conclusion, approving a 650-megawatt natural-gas power plant some 15 miles from Burrillville in Killingly, Conn.

Despite concern that natural-gas infrastructure development is coming to a halt, many projects have been built or are moving forward across the region. Most of the development is being done by Enbridge Inc., the Calgary-based colossus that took over Spectra Energy Corp. of Houston in 2017 to become one of the largest fossil-fuel pipeline companies in North America.

Enbridge’s 1,100-mile Algonquin Gas Transmission Pipeline that runs from New Jersey to the Boston area is the main artery for this new infrastructure. The $3.2 billion Access Northeast project encompasses a series of smaller plans intended to bring more natural gas to the region, alleviate gas shortages, and lower prices. Although portions of the project have been suspended, such as an LNG storage facility in Acushnet, Mass., natural-gas infrastructure is being built.

Atlantic Bridge. The Atlantic Bridge project is the largest piece of the Access Northeast plan. Compressor stations in Oxford and Chaplin, Conn., have already been beefed up to push more natural gas through the Algonquin pipeline. The project also intents to send natural gas to Canada, by reversing the flow of the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline. Skeptics say reversing the gas flow north of Boston is intended to export natural gas from terminals in Canada. Enbridge maintains that it has no intention to export liquefied natural gas. The company expects to have the work completed in 2020.

Burrillville compressor station. Also part of the Access Northeast expansion project, is the enlargement of this already-substantial compressor station to 32,500 horsepower. Compressor stations are noisy neighbors, emitting a steady rumble as they run almost nonstop. Periodic blowdowns produce a loud jet engine-like sound that can run for several hours. Compressor stations also vent hazardous air pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde.

Providence liquefaction plant. Approved in 2017, this natural-gas cooling facility increases the availability of liquefied fuel National Grid stores at its tanks in Rhode Island and Connecticut. The 108-foot-high facility will be located on Providence’s industrial waterfront, an environmental justice area threatened by sea-level rise, storm surge, and flooding. The facility will be an additional source of pollution for residents living in one of the most polluted areas in New England.

Weymouth, Mass., compressor station. This part of the Atlantic Bridge pipeline expansion project seeks to connect two pipelines and deliver natural gas to Boston and on to Canada. Like the liquefaction plant, the proposed 7,700-horsepower Weymouth compressor is in an industrial/residential environmental justice community. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the plan in 2017. Permits from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection are being disputed and a separate permit is due from the Office of Coastal Zone Management. Studies are also expected from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. More than a dozen lawsuits and appeals are ongoing.

Rehoboth, Mass., compressor station. As part of its Access Northeast project, Enbridge proposed a 10,320-horsepower compressor station along the Algonquin pipeline in Rehoboth. Enbridge put the project on hold in June 2017, after a Massachusetts court ruled that utilities can’t charge customers for gas infrastructure projects. Rehoboth residents and their neighbors fear the project may be revived.

West Roxbury, Mass., lateral. Despite protests, arrests, lawsuits, and political opposition, the new 5-mile section of pipeline was built in 2018. This Enbridge project is also along the Algonquin pipeline.

Tennessee Gas Pipeline. Located along the southern edge of Massachusetts and owned by Kinder Morgan, the project expands a compressor stations in the town of Agawam so that local utilities can install higher-capacity pipes. It also adds a looping pipeline and a new meter station in Longmeadow, Mass. The project is encountering opposition from several communities.