Will a Recent Emergency Methane Release Be the Third Strike for Weymouth’s New Natural Gas Compressor?

Nearby residents, environmentalists and energy executives are all asking whether this time, FERC actually pulls the facility’s permit in this closely watched environmental justice case.

A construction worker bends down next to a pipe on the Enbridge compressor worksite in Weymouth, Massachuetts on July 13, 2020. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A construction worker bends down next to a pipe on the Enbridge compressor worksite in Weymouth, Massachuetts on July 13, 2020. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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For the third time in less than a year, the operators of a new natural gas compressor shoe-horned into an environmental justice community near Boston have vented an emergency release of natural gas into surrounding neighborhoods. 

The unplanned venting came as federal regulators, including a Trump appointee, had already moved to consider a possible re-assessment of the facility’s permit out of safety concerns related to the first two unplanned releases.

The sudden release of large volumes of natural gas poses a potential explosion hazard. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is also a potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more effective at warming the planet than carbon dioxide over the near-term. The venting of natural gas also contributes to ground level ozone, which causes more than 100,000 premature deaths globally each year, and releases volatile organic compounds like benzene and toluene, some of which have been found to be carcinogenic. 

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If the permit for the compressor—the linchpin of a pipeline network that ships hydraulically fractured gas from Pennsylvania to Canada—is revoked, it could have wide-ranging implications for the natural gas industry regionally and nationwide.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a little known yet powerful federal entity that oversees new natural gas infrastructure in the U.S., has only rarely rescinded a permit once it has been issued.

The key question everyone from community and environmental advocates in small town Massachusetts to fossil fuel executives in Calgary and Houston are now asking is whether this might be an instance when the  commission actually takes a permit away. 

A Heavily Impacted Area

The Weymouth compressor sits at the foot of a bridge at the mouth of the Fore River, a gritty industrial area just to the south of Boston Harbor. Quincy Point and Germantown, two low-income, environmental justice communities with a high percentage of residents of color, are located approximately half a mile from the facility.

In addition to the compressor, which pumps natural gas northward on its way from Pennsylvania to Canada, at least eight other existing fossil fuel and industrial facilities are located within a mile, including a gasoline and oil depot, a chemical plant, two power plants, a sewage pumping station and a hazardous waste transfer and treatment facility.

Community organizers and local politicians, including Massachusetts’ two U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both Democrats, have long opposed the facility because it added pollution to an already heavily impacted area.

Residents of Quincy Point and Germantown have experienced higher rates of cancer, pediatric asthma and respiratory and heart diseases, according to a health impact assessment conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of greater Boston, in partnership with state health and environmental agencies.

Before federal regulators approved the compressor for operations to begin in January, the facility had two emergency releases of natural gas in September during a testing phase, resulting in the release of 364,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 62 pounds of volatile organic compounds.  

The unplanned releases led FERC to grant a request to hear public comments over whether the commission should reconsider the permit it granted for the facility.

One day after the initial public comment period ended on April 5, facility operators conducted a third emergency release of an additional 11,430 cubic feet of natural gas and 2 pounds of volatile organic compounds. The exact cause for the release is not known, but emergency releases are typically initiated to quickly reduce pressure at compressor facilities and within adjoining pipelines. Enbridge, the Calgary-based parent company of Algonquin Gas Transmission, which owns and operates the compressor, characterized the event as an “unplanned gas release” and said it did not pose a safety hazard.

“On April 6, natural gas was released in a controlled manner at the Weymouth Compressor Station through a stack which is designed to safely vent natural gas,” Max Bergeron, a spokesperson for Enbridge said.  “While we continue to hold safety as our highest priority, neither the community nor the facility were at risk.”

However, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a federal agency that regulates natural gas pipelines, investigated the two emergency releases from the Weymouth compressor station during testing last year and concluded that “the release of large quantities of pressurized natural gas in a heavily populated area carries a substantial risk of fire, explosion, and personal injury or death and releases harmful methane into the environment.” 

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A second, previously scheduled, public comment period will now begin as FERC’s five commissioners weigh whether or not they should reconsider the permit in light of the recent releases. 

The Commission is composed of five politically appointed commissioners, two Democrats and three Republicans. The decision will likely rest on the vote of Neil Chatterjee, a Trump appointee who sided with the commission’s two Democrats in a vote in January that allowed the current public comment period to proceed.

The Trump administration raised eyebrows in November 2020 when it demoted Chatterjee as chairman of FERC, after he expressed support for rooftop solar and carbon pricing.

Chatterjee did not respond to a request for comment on last week’s emergency release. However, he tweeted in December that “requests for rehearing of the Weymouth order raise important issues that deserve input from a full Commission.”

Broader Implications 

Detailed public comments from pipeline companies, industry trade associations and national environmental organizations filed thus far suggest the impact of the commission’s ruling will go far beyond Weymouth. 

Enbridge, the American Gas Association, a trade organization, and Energy Transfer, a Houston-based pipeline company with no direct link to the Weymouth compressor, say PHMSA has the sole authority to regulate gas pipelines once they have been approved by FERC.     

Despite concluding that the release of large volumes of natural gas into a heavily populated area carries a substantial risk, PHMSA allowed Enbridge to begin operating the facility after completing an independent, third-party “root cause” analysis of the releases.     

In its brief, the AGA warned that a reversal of the certificate allowing the Weymouth compressor “could pave the way for the Commission to revisit and potentially revoke a certificate order issued months, years, or even decades after projects were authorized, built, and in service.”

But Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council who works on the FERC project, said, “Three emergency blowdowns in eight months is not representative of the average gas facility across the United States.I think it would be a bit of hyperbole to allege that the unique circumstances here put all other pipelines on notice.”

However, Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley said a rehearing of the Weymouth compressor permit could be an “opening salvo” in a reassessment of fossil fuel energy.

“Traditionally, fossil fuels have been given a pass on safety issues,” Kammen said. “To do an honest assessment of clean versus dirty energy you need to look not only at price per kilowatt hour, but also at the availability and safety issues.”

For Alice Arena, of Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, opposition to the facility is entirely about the health and safety of her community, as she said it has been since she first started fighting the project six years ago.

“They put a compressor station in an area where there is no possibility for evacuation should there be an accident,” Arena said. “These facilities are toxic, they are constantly off-gassing VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and particulate matter in an area that is already overburdened.”