Protesters Call for a Halt to Three Massachusetts Pipeline Projects

Activists march to Boston to battle three major projects they say will lock the state into fossil fuel dependence for decades.

Natural gas pipeline protesters descend on Boston

Pipeline protesters ended a 43-mile march in Boston and rallied at the Massachusetts statehouse on Monday. Photo courtesy of #PeopleOverPipelines.

Hundreds of environmental activists protested at the Massachusetts Statehouse this week against natural gas pipeline projects that would significantly increase the amount of fracked gas delivered to the eastern part of the state. Pipeline opponents said the added capacity isn't needed, would rely on increases in consumer utility rates, and would lock the state into future dependence on fossil fuels and their related emissions for decades.  

"We strongly believe that it is well past time to stop building fossil fuel infrastructure and to make sure that all of our energy that comes online is clean energy that we feel good about being dependent on for the next few decades," said Craig Altemose, executive director of Better Future Project and an organizer of the protest.

Altemose addressed more than 200 supporters Monday morning after a four-day, 43-mile march along three contested Spectra Energy pipeline projects ended in a rally inside the state capital.  It was the latest in a series of high-profile protests this summer that included the June 29 arrest of Al Gore's daughter, Karenna Gore, and prominent climate activist Tim DeChristopher at a pipeline construction site in Boston.

They come as proposed fossil fuel infastructure projects nationwide face a mix of grassroots opposition and unfriendly market forces. This week, the city of Oakland, Calif., confirmed its ban on a coal export terminal. Since the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected by President Obama on climate grounds last November, at least two dozen other proposed energy projects have been rejected or delayed.

The Boston protests follow a report published in November by state attorney general Maura Healey that concluded the added capacity is not needed to meet electricity generation needs in the state for the next 15 years.

"The region can maintain electric reliability through 2030, even without additional new natural gas pipelines," the report said. "Even under a 'stressed system' scenario, there are cheaper, less carbon intensive ways to ensure electric reliability, like energy efficiency and demand response, that are less risky for ratepayers."

Environmental advocates say the pipeline projects run counter to binding emission reduction goals set by Massachusetts. In 2008, the state passed legislation that mandates an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The legislation, known as The Global Warming Solutions Act was upheld by the state's Supreme Judicial Court this May.

Spectra's pipeline projects "really can't be squared with the emissions profile that Massachusetts needs to achieve in the next 30 years," David Ismay, a senior attorney for environmental advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation, said. "There is no way to get from here to there by continuing to burn the same volumes of gas and there is certainly no way to do it by burning more gas than we currently burn now."

Marylee Hanley, director of stakeholder outreach at Spectra Energy, said the pipeline projects will provide "a vital source of reliable, affordable energy."

Peter Lorenz, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said Gov. Charlie Baker's administration aims to diversify the state's energy portfolio to include hydroelectric power from Canada and energy efficiency measures. But he said Baker also anticipates that added natural gas capacity will be part of that mix.

Spectra plans to complete three pipeline projects in the Boston area, two of which have already been approved by the state Department of Public Utilities to be funded by a rate increase to natural gas consumers. The third, the $3 billion Access Northeast project, is the largest of the three and is currently being reviewed by the DPU to be funded by a rate increase to electricity consumers. (If approved, Access Northeast, which also includes upgrades to the existing Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, would provide additional capacity for gas-fired power plants.)

Collectively, the three projects would add 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas delivery capacity to the region per day, a nearly 40 percent increase over current capacity.

Funding for the projects in Massachusetts is dependent on approval from Angela O'Connor, the chairwoman of DPU. O'Connor is a former lobbyist and president of the New England Power Generators Association, an industry group. In 2008, she lobbied against The Global Warming Solutions Act in Massachusetts on behalf of NEPGA. Some environmentalists said O'Connor's prior lobbying efforts have played a role in her department's support for gas pipelines, which Lorenz denied.

"The Department of Public Utilities, under the leadership of Chairwoman Angela O'Connor, remains committed to ensuring that utility consumers are provided with the most reliable service at the lowest possible cost, and that customer rights are protected," he said.

"I think she has a mindset that is probably 20 years out of date," said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Energy Consumer Alliance of New England, a group that advocates for affordable and sustainable energy. "I think that we can meet our energy needs much more flexibly with stronger emphasis on energy efficiency, demand response, grid modernization, storage of energy and renewable energy and she would have us commit ourselves long term to increasing amounts of fossil fuels."

Ismay said he fears the pipeline expansion projects may also be an effort to push hydraulically fractured gas from Pennsylvania through New England to export terminals in Canada.

"The volumes of gas that they want to bring in are well above any reasonable projections of incremental near term need for the region," Ismay said. "There are a number of applications for new export facilities that are pending in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They mention that their supply will be coming from the south, from New England, but they do not name their source of where they're going to get it."

Spectra spokeswoman Hanley said, "None of the project have any plans to export natural gas."

The Conservation Law Foundation and others appealed an October 2015 decision by the Massachusetts DPU to allow electric utilities to raise their rates to pay for gas pipeline projects.  Healey argued in favor of the appeal. The case was heard on May 5 by the state's Supreme Court and a decision is still pending.

The Massachusetts Senate passed an energy bill on June 30 that would prohibit the funding of pipeline projects through electricity rate increases. The bill is now in a conference committee with a House energy bill that did not seek to prohibit such funding for new pipelines.

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