Whether it succeeds or fails, the New England Governors’ proposal to subsidize fracked gas pipeline expansion through a public tariff is going to go down in history as “the gas tax that unites us.” Energy policy can be confusing, secretive, and abstract, but think of the New England Governors’ newest pipeline-financing proposal this way:
You’re living in a home with three-quarters of the rooms occupied. You want to take on more tenants, increased revenues sound nice for your family, but you’re a room or two away from running out of space. One of the bedrooms has been converted to storage. You’re still hanging onto stuff from your last house that you’d meant to get rid of—it’s a mess and might actually violate code—but cleaning up the junk just sounds like a hassle. You don’t really want to hire someone else to clean it up, either. What you really want is MORE space. What to do?
Suddenly, you’re approached by an out-of-town developer with a brilliant plan: raise the rents of everyone on your property so you can build a brand-spanking new house down the street. It’s not just your tenants, actually—you’d have to invest your own money, too, and take out a mortgage, and tell your teenager to stop worrying about college and start pitching in more—but it’ll give you the space you want. In conversation with your neighbors, you realize the same developer has sold them on the idea, too. Great—why don’t you all go in together?
You pitch the idea to your tenants, telling them they’ll get cheaper rent AFTER the new house is built. You guilt them into it (“come on, there’s a housing shortage in this community”), even though you know your neighbors, just, like you, are searching for tenants right now, still trying to fill rooms.
Your developer’s excited. He’s so grateful that he’s even offered to make you a loan himself. By the time you start talking up the plan to your family, the deal is already inked. Your aunt doesn’t think the idea is so great, she’s heard that the real estate market is in wild fluctuation these days, but what does she know anyway.
A public subsidy to build a fracked gas pipeline through conservation land and private property. That is literally the best plan New England states could come up with in the midst of the energy and economic crises we’re facing. And I’m not referring to a crisis of gas supply—our pipelines, perhaps 75% subscribed, are hardly full—but to the destabilization of our climate, to growing income inequality and the public health epidemics striking many of our neighborhoods. Let’s step back for a moment: this energy proposal is so offensive and so risky on so many levels that everyone from the Tea Party to the Democratic establishment to the Eco-Socialists to the disturbingly disenfranchised members of the general public should be outraged.
To rephrase that: you don’t even need to believe that the earth is warming to believe this is a bad idea.
First, the rate proposal itself is backwards. Why, as one consumer advocate recently opined, would we accept a Known significant cost for an Unknown potential reduction in rates down the line? The policymakers pushing for gas are doing so on the basis of cheaper bills for New England businesses, but this is far from certain, particularly when fluctuating gas prices and pressure for exports are in the mix. What we do know is that—even as the need for infrastructure expansion itself is being questioned—any rate benefits that might come down the line won’t be seen for years, while during the years leading up to the supposed golden era of affordable energy, we’ll foot the bill for the big bad build-out. Even if a net financial benefit were certain within five or ten years, we’d have to first accept, as a region, that an unprecedented regional public subsidy for private corporations is acceptable. As New England will have to appeal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to commence with its ratepayer robbery, the precedent and policy impact will affect the entire nation.
Second, we simply don’t need the massive infrastructure build-out, but attempts to point this out are being squashed by the big and the powerful. Black and Veatch, consultants hired by the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE), have noted that under a low-demand scenario, projects like the proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which would run from Wright, New York through the Berkshires to Dracut in North-Central Massachusetts, with some amount of lateral offshoots into gosh-knows-where, are simply unnecessary. Even B&V’s projected need may be greater than the reality—we’re talking about static numbers for a fuel demand that changes not only by season, but over the course of a single day. So let’s talk about diversifying fuel choices, coordinating fuel markets and reducing demand, at least enough to ensure we are making sound financial decisions—something most of the New England Governors seem entirely unwilling to do.
SOME of the fuel-diverse solutions to meet our power needs could include efficiency and conservation, distributed generation, responsibly-sited hydropower (there are multiple proposals, so we can still eschew the controversial Northern Pass), gas and electric market reforms (one runs on a 5-day/week system, the other runs on a 7-day week), and interim use of existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Let’s be clear: your gas supply is not at risk. Your local distribution company—whether it be National Grid or Berkshire Gas—has no problem getting your supply for gas heat. They buy their gas in a manner that ensures it, paying a premium for firm contracts. We’re talking about a principally electric sector issue and we have significant flexibility in the approaches we use. Even in the heat arena, we have options to expand gas and oil efficiency while cultivating creative solutions ranging from renewable thermal heat to a clean and ethically-sound waste-oil biodiesel plant in Greenfield, MA.
Third—and in many ways, this is the core problem at hand—the quiet, backdoor fixing of this proposal is a direct attack on democracy, and one that is directly disadvantageous to those with the least power to affect it. Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has served as a careful watchdog to the process, recently filing a Freedom of Information Act request about communications between state agencies, utilities and the pipeline companies. The results of the FOIA have already been shocking—although some states, as well as NESCOE itself, are doing their best not to comply with the request. Communications have suggested that New England’s energy policy and corresponding ratepayer charges are being “formulated behind closed doors” because the “court of public opinion can be fickle and recalcitrant.” In a brief on the FOIA-ed documents, CLF notes that state administrations are taking cues and talking points directly from gas companies, and casting aside lower-burden, lower-build options without even looking into them. (On the topic of alternatives, please note a sign-on letter sent by over 100+ OTHER groups on June 24 to the NE Governors). The grid operator, ISO-NE, has literally called for an “overbuild” of infrastructure in private meetings. Is this what our elected officials, and those who work for them, mean by “energy security”?
These are some basic considerations of energy, economy and democracy one would hope any policymaker would consider before committing to charging New England ratepayers on their bill for years, or building an interstate pipeline across orchards in Deerfield, under the Nashua River in Groton and across many, many parcels private land. And speaking of pipelines in Massachusetts, anyone who wants your vote should note the many hundreds of activists rallying in towns across the route of the proposed Tennessee Gas project (see: No Fracked Gas in Mass or the conservation-awareness network, MassPlan), the numerous municipal resolutions against the project and the consistent advocacy by people from Pittsfield to Pepperell who often feel ignored by policies designed top-down from Beacon Hill.
One of New England’s Governors has finally “piped” up about the regional process, suggesting that massive infrastructure overbuild might be a bad idea. During a recent conference of utility commissioners, Vermont’s Governor Shumlin stated, “I’m not sure that we really know with the evolutions of technology and the local, distributed generation of power that we are not going to be paying for huge stranded costs if we build tons and tons of delivery.” Let’s hope that before we get too far down the line to turn back, his counterparts (as well as those running to replace them this September and November) choose a wiser path. Because even if you reroute the pipeline, you’re not going to be able to reroute the rage once it starts hitting all of New England residents on their utility bills.
(Joel Wool is an environmental advocate from Dorchester, MA, and staff at Clean Water Action).
SELECT MEDIA LINKS:
Boston Business Journal article on pipeline tariff
WBZ-TV clip on W. MA response to pipeline
New Hampshire Public Radio article (nice dialogue with utility commissioners and NH Gov’s office)
Hartford Courant: Emails Show States’ Tight Grip on Regional Power Projects