Deb Pasternak: A dirty bridge to nowhere

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BOSTON — A few short weeks ago, the deceptively named Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy — a group backed by pipeline proponents Eversource, National Grid, and Enbridge — announced that the Cape Cod, Neponset Valley and Sandwich Chambers of Commerce had joined its ranks. They are joining numerous corporate groups in the Baystate (the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts) that invest in and are in favor of drilling for fracked gas and pushing to build new pipelines to carry it through the state. This is despite the widespread knowledge that expanding our use of fossil fuels will deepen the climate change spiral we are currently facing. Burning fracked gas will prevent us from lowering our emissions as necessary to avert the climate catastrophe that is causing stronger storms, longer droughts, and rising sea levels.

What is astonishing is that they say fracked "natural" gas is a common sense, climate-friendly alternative to burning oil and coal during winter cold snaps. But, in fact, like coal and oil, fracked gas is a serious threat to our climate. The methane in fracked gas is 87 times worse for climate change than carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, to shore up their argument, Enbridge (the company which gave America one of its largest inland oil spills in 2010 in Michigan's Kalamazoo River and is a major shipper of Canadian tar sands oil) has hired as a lobbyist Brian Dempsey, former chair of the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee — a crystal-clear sign of arming for renewed battle to force pipelines through Massachusetts communities.

There are many reasons why these pipeline proponents are pushing so strongly right now. Below are four factors that we all need to know:

1) The utilities who build interstate fracked gas pipelines are currently guaranteed a 14 percent return on such investment. This is an outdated Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) policy from the days when we thought it necessary to build pipelines and needed to make sure that they were incentivized (FERC regulates the transmission and wholesale sale of electricity and natural gas in interstate commerce and regulates the transportation of oil by pipeline in interstate commerce). Utilities are currently working hard to convince regulators that expanded gas pipeline capacity is necessary in order to secure approval for these highly profitable projects.

2) The costs of renewable energy and storage continue to plummet. So much so that they are at equivalent or cheaper cost with many fossil fuels across the country. Here in Massachusetts, the first offshore wind farm offered 20 year electricity contracts at a cost of $0.065 (6.5 cents!) per kWh. That's a 20-year guaranteed price with absolutely no volatility due to Middle East politics or pipeline spills.

DEMAND WILL PLUMMET

3) Demand for fracked — so called "natural" — gas is expected to plummet in the next decade here in Massachusetts because of gains made in energy efficiency (ie — replacing incandescent lightbulbs with more efficient ones) and increased renewable energy generation from local solar and offshore wind farms. Together, these two factors are already lowering electricity demand, even as our population grows.

4) The Massachusetts public is losing confidence in fracked gas. Why? As much as 10 percent of our annual carbon footprint is created between our combustion of fracked gas and the over 16,000 individual leaks in our aging fracked gas pipeline infrastructure statewide. We also are learning about the many public health risks associated with those leaks, and sadly after the Merrimack Valley explosions and ensuing Woburn overpressurization event, we have become more aware of the dangers of piping this explosive fuel into our homes and offices.

Sadly, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker continues to support expanding the state's dependence on fracked gas. This despite the 2016 state Supreme Judicial Court ruling that a scheme he backed to finance pipelines on the backs of ratepayers was unconstitutional. His support for fracked gas pipelines is even more astonishing when you consider that his own administration's Comprehensive Energy Plan, released last month, said fracked gas demand will decrease by 2022 due to increased renewable generation and additional energy efficiency gains.

Synapse Energy Economics, the same consulting firm that worked on the Comprehensive Energy Plan, said one of the proposed pipelines, Access Northeast, would cost consumers $6.6 billion over its 20 years, even though it stands to be a stranded asset — meaning not necessary for supplying our energy needs — long before that.

Meanwhile the many regional economic successes of transitioning to a renewable energy economy just keep stacking up in terms of job growth and industry investment. Even without factoring in the so called "externalities" of lower public health costs and climate change mitigation; renewable energy, storage and efficiency make plain good economic sense. There is no reason to continue to send billions of dollars out of our local economy for dirty fossil fuels when safer cleaner energy sources can be produced in growing green industries, right here.

With the renewed and well funded fossil fuel push for bringing expanded expensive fracked gas pipelines into Massachusetts, it is imperative that our politicians hear loud and clear from Massachusetts residents that we do not need the capacity or the expense of these proposed projects. Between its cost, public health and safety issues, and direct contribution to climate change, natural gas is a dirty bridge to nowhere.

Deb Pasternak is chapter director, Massachusetts Sierra Club




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