For activists fighting the suspended Access Northeast pipeline project, their arguments about its incongruity with green energy conversion have finally borne fruit.
Developers Thursday withdrew their proposed $3.2 billion Access Northeast pipeline project, which would cut through nine communities as it works its way to the state’s coastline south of Boston.
The decision was cause to celebrate for pipeline opponents. But they do not believe their work is done as pipeline supporters indicate they may submit plans down the road if they can find a way to pay for it.
“Over the last three years, we have seen a truly incredible wave of grassroots resistance to new fossil fuel pipelines in Massachusetts,” Craig Altemose, Executive Director for 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future, said in a statement. “Thousands of concerned citizens have called and emailed their legislators, submitted public comments, packed into public hearings, and taken to the streets for massive rallies and multi-day marches.
“Spectra recognized that their deep pockets were no match for grassroots power. It’s only a matter of time before other fossil fuel companies come to the same realization. We look forward to Spectra similarly abandoning their plans for the similarly offensive and unnecessary Atlantic Bridge project.”
An SJC ruling from last year prevents electric utilities from covering the cost of a pipeline through customer rate hikes. Spectra/Enbridge could go in the direction of raising rates on natural gas customers, a smaller group of Massachusetts residents for whom the cost increase could be significant.
Another state Supreme Judicial Court ruling, that the commonwealth had not met its legal obligation to radically reduce fossil fuel consumption by 2050, appears to clash with the efforts to add more natural gas pipeline capacity. They are big and they are expensive and they are not green.
Upton, Grafton and Shrewsbury, communities along the Access Northeast route, have passed anti-pipeline resolutions. Shrewsbury High School was one of several educational facilities that would fall within the buffer zone of the so-called West Boylston Lateral pipeline. Other towns on the proposed route include West Boylston, Boylston, Millbury, Sutton, Milford and Medway.
Can pipelines of this magnitude go hand-in-hand with the legally mandated shift toward renewable energy?
“Absolutely not,” said Claire Miller, a community organizer with the New England-wide Toxics Action Center, who has spent three years helping Massachusetts communities fight pipeline developer Spectra Energy, recently purchased by Enbridge Inc. of Canada.
In its May 2016 ruling, the state high court said in order to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008, passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Deval Patrick, the state must “… promulgate regulations that establish volumetric limits on multiple greenhouse gas emissions sources, expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents, and that such limits must decline on an annual basis.”
The court further stated, “In accordance with these findings, the statute requires that, by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions be reduced by at least [80 percent] below 1990 levels.”
It continued, “The act established a comprehensive framework to address the effects of climate change in the Commonwealth by reducing emissions to levels that scientific evidence had suggested were needed to avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change.”
As a first step, the state must reduce its fossil fuel consumption by 25 percent by 2020.
Suggested link: WBUR breaks down SJC ruling
Pipeline opponents have raised a number of concerns about the project, including the specter of explosions that would incinerate people within 1,000 feet or more. While such mishaps are rare, they are not unheard of. The installation of a gas pipeline, likely along the route of existing power lines, would create new and larger buffer zones than already exist, drawing in people who have gone about their lives comfortably despite being in the high-tension wire zone.
On Thursday, those activists had cause to celebrate when Spectra announced it had withdrawn the Access Northeast project and its 125 miles of pipeline from pre-filing review.
Prior to the company’s announcement, much seemed to hinge on what a little-known state agency might do, possibly as early as this summer. The Office of Coastal Zone Management has the authority to issue a permit for a compressor station in Weymouth that would allow the pipeline to bring natural gas to the Massachusetts shore.
“Weymouth is the linchpin for that project and really for the whole Access Northeast. If they get Weymouth, it opens the floodgates for Access Northeast,” said Carolyn Barthel of Mendon in an interview conducted before Thursday’s Spectra announcement. She has been working with pipeline opponents in 17 communities to persuade their town government bodies to come out against both the Access Northeast project and the Atlantic Bridge project, which is still in the works and affects other Massachusetts communities.
If the Weymouth permit is denied it would stop any of the projects, said Miller of the Toxics Action Center.
Some recent reporting by DeSmog, an online publication that covers issues affecting climate change, documented a relationship between the Baker Administration and Spectra Energy lobbyists that has project opponents concerned. One story detailed a series of emails showing that the state Department of Environmental Protection allowed Spectra to edit a pollution permit for the Weymouth compressor station.
And state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton of Shrewsbury (along with Baker) has been among the few proponents of the pipeline.
In case there is any doubt about which direction the state should be headed, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, wants to up the ante on fossil fuel reduction. He is sponsoring legislation that would require the state to transform entirely to renewable energy by that mid-century mark.
“I’m firmly opposed to any new pipeline construction,” Eldridge said before Thursday’s pipeline project suspension. “We need to focus on increasing our renewable energy options if we’re serious about reducing our dependence on dirty fossil fuels and meeting our emissions reduction targets.”
Supporters of the legislation and the overall move toward green energy believe existing pipeline proposals should be abandoned since they would become obsolete in just a few decades.
“If the proposed project is located in or near a coastal zone and requires a federal license or permit, the Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) would need to conduct a federal consistency review,” according to a spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). “At this time, Spectra Energy has not filed anything that would trigger a federal consistency review by CZM.”
Related link: Access Northeast map and information
Enbridge did not return a request for comment.
In 2015, state Attorney General Maura Healey announced a study showing the state does not need additional gas capacity to meet its electricity reliability needs.
While the federal government ultimately has the authority over such projects, when cities and towns exercise their own rights it has a snowball effect, said Rand Barthel of Mendon, who along with his wife, Carolyn, is a member of 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future, which like the Toxics Action Center, works on climate change issues.
“Towns have the ability to be interveners in the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) process,” Rand Barthel said. “A lot of the towns are becoming interveners. It makes sense for the towns to have a place at the table.”
Pipeline opponents considered Shrewsbury a significant get, as it is the hometown of EEA chief Beaton and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
Pipeline developers joining Spectra/Enbridge included National Grid and Eversource Energy.
“There really isn’t proper awareness,” Carolyn Barthel said. “There are 17 towns on the two pipelines and there still is a fair lack of awareness. The ones that have been really active and aware have passed anti-pipeline resolutions.
“Once a town finds out about it, there seems to be more engagement,” she said. “You need to find a small group of people who are willing to be the sparks to organize the town against an effort like this – a pipeline — and that’s not always easy to find. You do what you can.
“A fire department can’t really put out a pipeline fire,” Carolyn Barthel said. “They have to call Spectra down in Houston … to turn off the right valve. They say they can shut off valves in three minutes, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Then you have to burn off all the gas between the two valves.
“They put valves about every five to 10 miles,” she said. “Evacuees have to stay upwind of it and the fire department can’t fight it. You just have to let it go.”
“You have to think in the long term, not the short term,” she said. “Back in 2008, having an 80 percent reduction [in greenhouse gas emissions] by 2050 was a really outrageous and bold goal. But now it isn’t. We have seen that global warming is accelerating and we have to act quickly.”