Groundbreaking Settlement Reached on Salem Natural Gas Facility

Feb 18, 2014 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

In a groundbreaking settlement with Footprint Power on its proposed natural gas facility in Salem, MA, the plant developers agreed to emissions limits and a future shutdown date to comply with Massachusetts mandates. The settlement ensures that, for the first time ever, a proposed natural-gas-fired plant must comply with conditions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and over-reliance on fossil fuels.

Our press release about the settlement is below. Look for more analysis about this settlement in future blog posts. 

BOSTON, MA  February 18, 2014 – Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) today announced that the organization has reached a groundbreaking settlement ensuring that for the first time, a proposed natural gas-fired power plant must comply with conditions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and over-reliance on fossil fuels, including enforceable annually declining emissions limits and a date certain for future plant retirement. The agreement between CLF and the developers of the natural gas-fired Footprint Power Plant proposed at the site of a retiring coal-fired plant in Salem, Mass., has been filed for final review and approval with Massachusetts state authorities.

“At a time when many across the nation and the world see unrestricted growth of natural gas as a climate solution, this is the first settlement providing a pathway for new natural gas infrastructure to help enable rather than undermine a clean energy future,” said CLF President John Kassel. “By recognizing the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas-fired plants, this agreement reaffirms that natural gas and other fossil fuel projects must comply with state climate mandates, and has important implications for similar projects in the region and nationally.”

Since summer 2012, the proposed Footprint plant has been at the center of legal battles over concerns raised by CLF and residents of Salem and surrounding communities, on the grounds that neither the plant’s developers nor the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had demonstrated how the proposed facility could be consistent with the deep emissions reductions established by the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick in 2008, requiring emissions to be cut at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Under the settlement announced today, the developers of the Footprint plant agreed to the first ever set of binding conditions for a natural gas plant that establish decreasing annual emissions limits and a retirement date of no later than January 1, 2050. These conditions will help to ensure that the new plant will not hinder Massachusetts’ progress toward reducing emissions. In addition, in connection with the settlement, the Patrick Administration has committed to provide support to municipalities with active or retired coal plants with up to $2 million in funding to build renewable energy facilities and transition to clean energy rather than relying on new fossil fuel plants.

“This agreement shows how natural gas can be a tool for reducing greenhouse emissions if it is appropriately conditioned and constrained in a manner that is consistent with the need to decarbonize our energy system,” said Shanna Cleveland, attorney for CLF. “Natural gas is often viewed as a bridge to the clean energy future; this settlement ensures that there is an end to that bridge. CLF will continue to advocate for sound legal frameworks around energy projects for the benefit of the citizens, communities, economy, and environment of Massachusetts and the entire region.”

The settlement will only take effect if the Siting Board incorporates the entirety of the agreement into the Final Decision as a condition of the approval that the Siting Board is proposing to issue for Footprint Power’s plant. A public meeting will be held at the Siting Board at 10 a.m. at One South Station, Fifth Floor, Hearing Room A in Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday, February 20.

Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people. Using the law, science and the market, CLF creates solutions that conserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy region-wide. Founded in 1966, CLF is a nonprofit, member-supported organization with offices in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Sensible Thoughts About the Proposed Salem MA Gas-Fired Power Plant

Feb 5, 2014 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

The editorial page of the Boston Globe today weighed in on the natural gas-fired power plant that a New Jersey–based company (Footprint Power) is seeking to build in Salem, Massachusetts.

The whole editorial is well worth reading – but the final three paragraphs are particularly striking:

Footprint CEO Peter Furniss says the plant will start off as a crucial supplier of electricity to New England’s often strained power grid, especially as the Vermont Yankee nuclear station and the Brayton Point coal plant come off line. But Furniss says the Footprint gas plant will eventually taper to a role of firming up energy supplies as more solar and wind sources come online under Massachusetts’ aggressive green-energy policies, which require an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The state’s facilities siting board approved the plant last fall, saying it “contributes to a reliable, low-cost, diverse regional energy supply with minimal environmental impacts.” Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Rick Sullivan says the plant is part of the “balancing act” of maintaining reliability while converting to a clean-energy future.

But some environmental watchdog groups don’t buy it. The Conservation Law Foundation has filed an appeal of the plant’s approval with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the state is undermining its long-term emissions targets. The lawyers assert that regional CO2 emissions have already dropped close to the level of modern gas plants, meaning that adding another one does nothing but maintain the status quo. The CLF wants more proof that the plant will not derail the long-term goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

As a mid-sized city seizing a rare chance to revitalize its waterfront, Salem is understandably eager to build the plant. The Patrick administration makes a plausible case for the need to get the plant online to assure that Massachusetts has enough power at peak periods. But the conservationists also make an important point: Today’s energy decisions must be viewed in terms of the fight to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. There should be a plan on paper for the plant to operate at levels that don’t impede the achievement of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Gas powers the economy for now, but the state must clear the way for a clean-energy future as soon as technologically feasible.

The editorial highlights two key points: 1) new energy infrastructure such as the proposed Footprint gas plant in Salem needs to be consistent with the objective of reducing global warming pollution 80% by 2050 and 2) CLF’s goal is to ensure that this requirement be respected in the permitting of the proposed power plant. We firmly believe that, as the editorial suggests, the legal requirement CLF is championing can be respected at the same time that the lights remain on and Salem builds a thriving economy. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of balancing act our whole society and economy will need to master again and again as we confront the crisis of global warming.

The issues addressed in the editorial are even more pertinent today as the State has, unfortunately, moved forward another tentative decision proposing to approve another permit needed by that power plant without considering the critical issue of climate and compliance with the Global Warming Solutions Act. That tentative decision is reported on the website of the Boston Business Journal accurately noting that “CLF views this Salem issue as an important test case for the viability of these relatively new greenhouse gas emissions rules.”

Indeed, in our statement about the decision our Massachusetts Office Director Sue Reid notes, “The rushed and flawed approvals process for the Footprint Power Plant threatens the progress Massachusetts has made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are the state agencies denying the public the thorough vetting that a major new fossil fuel power plant like this deserves, the Patrick Administration is setting a terrible precedent for how similar projects are addressed—fast-tracking a major new source of greenhouse gas emissions while acting in violation of federal and state law.

Gas Pipeline Expansion Approved in Vermont

Jan 8, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Just before Christmas, Vermont regulators approved a significant expansion of a natural gas pipeline in the western part of the state. You can read the decision here.

During the proceedings, Conservation Law Foundation raised serious concerns about the greenhouse gas emission impacts of the project. CLF made recommendations on how to reduce those impacts with significant expansion of energy efficiency.

As we are sitting in a polar vortex, it is clearer every day that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is imperative.

If all we do is replace oil with gas, we will not meet our climate change needs. We need to reduce fossil fuel use, including natural gas, now.

CLF’s advocacy put the issue of climate change and the effect of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure front and center in the case. The project began with an overly simplistic and unexamined evaluation of emissions that failed to consider full life-cycle greenhouse gas impacts.

CLF showed the flaws in this analysis. We showed the need to include the emissions from drilling and fracking of gas, and the need to guard very carefully against increasing emissions.

The final decision recognized the perils of climate change and the importance of reducing emissions. It also recognized the need for better assessments and mitigation of greenhouse gas impacts.

The decision requires development of more robust energy efficiency. Although a fairly small step, it recognizes the need to  to address greenhouse gasses from fossil fuel use and can serve as a model for future projects.

A proposal for the next phase of the project has already been submitted. CLF will be looking for further emission reductions. We can’t afford to build projects that destroy our climate.

“NO” to Expanding Gas Pipeline in Vermont

Nov 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

At a time when climate change demands we do everything we can to move away from fossil fuels, building a new gas pipeline in Vermont moves us in the wrong direction.

The Vermont Public Service Board must decide if a new 41 mile pipeline will advance the “public good” of Vermont.

Conservation Law Foundation has participated in the technical hearings and provided expert testimony that the project will INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions, damage our climate and lock us in to fossil fuels for fifty to one hundred years.

Now it is your turn. Tell the Board what you think. You can provide written or email comments to the Vermont Public Service Board at this link.

Some issues to highlight can include:

  • At a time when climate change is upon us we must think carefully about putting in place new fossil fuel systems that will be around for a very long time. Keeping us hooked on fossil fuels for many years is a bad idea.
  • The proposed project would run through valuable wetlands and farmland, and expands Vermont’s reliance on fossil fuels at a time we need to be moving away from these polluting sources.
  • This is the beginning of a bigger project to supply gas across Lake Champlain to New York. It also moves Vermont closer to being able to access gas supplies from fracking in the United States.

Let the Board know what concerns you have. Tell the Board you want to make sure energy is used wisely and that Vermont takes steps now to reduce our addiction to fossil fuels. It is important for the Public Service Board to hear from you.

Keenan’s Poison Pill Seeks to Exempt Salem Gas Plant from Permitting Process

Nov 13, 2013 by  | Bio |  8 Comment »

What would you sacrifice to have a power plant built in your backyard? Apparently, for Representative John D. Keenan of Salem, MA, the answer is just about anything. Representative Keenan is no stranger to handing out (or at least trying to hand out) sweetheart deals to power plant owners, but his latest attempt to get a power plant built in Salem, no matter the cost, is both unconstitutional and unconscionable.

Unhappy with the pace of the permitting process for the new natural gas plant planned by Footprint Power, a New Jersey-based developer, Keenan has hijacked an otherwise well-intentioned legislative effort to protect workers and the public from aging natural gas infrastructure, and is holding it hostage by adding language that would exempt Footprint Power from every single environmental and public health standard and permitting regime in favor of as-of-right approvals. Keenan’s proposed language attempts to allow Footprint to make an end run around any pesky appeals by local residents. It even purports to strip residents of their rights to appeal a federal air permit on the grounds that this project somehow should be exempt from complying with the laws, regulations, and public process that every other proposed power plant in the Commonwealth has had to satisfy.

Why would an elected official go so far out on a limb for one project? The legislation claims that the reliability of our electric system is at risk unless this plant is built without delay, but the truth is that ISO-NE, the regional electric grid operator, has a responsibility to plan for alternatives if the power plant doesn’t progress on schedule — and many of those alternatives, such as already planned transmission upgrades, may be cheaper and less carbon intensive.

According to Representative Keenan, the MA Energy Facilities Siting Board unanimously approved the construction of the facility, but he fails to mention that Ann Berwick, Chair of the Department of Public Utilities, expressed “misgivings” about approving the plant given that “the world is on a precipice” with respect to climate change, and that one board member declined to vote because he did not believe that the project had demonstrated that it could comply with the requirements of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction mandate, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).

Indeed, CLF filed an appeal of the Siting Board’s decision last Friday because there is simply no credible evidence in the record to show that this natural gas power plant will be able to comply with the requirements of the GWSA.

What is the GWSA, and why is it so important here? The Global Warming Solutions Act was passed in 2008 amid the growing awareness that climate change poses serious and imminent threats to the health and environment of all Massachusetts residents. Proof of that threat has mounted as storms like Irene, Nemo, and Sandy (not to mention this week’s super-typhoon Haiyan) have left devastation in their wake. The GWSA set mandates for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, mandates that are based on what the science tells us is necessary to avert the worst effects of climate change. The GWSA also requires that every agency must consider the effects of climate change in issuing any decision or approval.

Footprint Power and Representative Keenan have claimed that the proposed natural gas plant somehow will benefit the climate, but in doing so they seem to ignore that this new power plant would be capable of emitting over 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – a significant problem if we’re going to de-carbonize the electric grid by 2050, as necessary.

The bottom line is that while natural gas may burn cleaner than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel with significant carbon emissions. Locking in new natural gas infrastructure means locking out zero-carbon technologies like wind and solar. Footprint Power is proposing the first new natural gas plant since the enactment of the GWSA.  If we don’t set a strong precedent now for ensuring climate compatibility of new energy infrastructure – and ensuring bedrock environmental, public health and public trust protections are applied – then there is little chance we will succeed in meeting our climate mandates and protecting Massachusetts and its residents. Unfortunately, Representative Keenan has chosen protecting Footprint’s gas plant from review over protecting his constituents and the public process they’re due.

As a Hail Mary pass, it’s an odd one to be sure. Even if Keenan succeeds, the provision is not expected to survive review by the courts and probably would serve only to delay the required public process.

 

 

The Good, the Hopeful and the Ugly: Clean Energy in America and New England in the Fall of 2013

Sep 25, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

First, the good:  There’s some good news to report: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Connecticut are well on the way to implementing key provisions in the clean energy laws that CLF helped craft. These provisions ensure that for years to come the residents of both states will enjoy the benefit of clean and cost-effective renewable energy generated by solar and wind power.

In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports, the utilities are proposing to buy 565 Megawatts of wind power from six wind projects in Maine and New Hampshire.  At least two of those projects will be built by Boston based First Wind.

The Connecticut utilities, reports the Hartford Courant, are proposing to purchase 270 Megawatts of clean power, with 250 of those Megawatts coming from a wind farm in Aroostook County, Maine and 20 Megawatts from a solar project in Sprague and Lisbon, Connecticut.

For over a decade, Conservation Law Foundation has been advocating for states to encourage and require these kind of cost-effective long term contracts between utilities and renewable energy developers (in financial jargon, “going long”). These kinds of contracts are a smart and cost-effective way of managing the transition to a clean energy economy and are consistent with the restructured competitive electricity system and markets that CLF helped to create in our region in the 1990’s. CLF supported similar contracts to make the Cape Wind project possible and worked to shape the laws in both Massachusetts and Connecticut that enabled and mandated the contracts that have just been proposed in both states.

And from Washington, hopeful news: Environmental Protection Agency administrator (and wicked big Red Sox fan) Gina McCarthy announced that EPA is moving forward with the regulations required by the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of Carbon Dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas causing global warming, from new power plants. As CLF noted in our statement hailing this move:

The emissions limits proposed by EPA are critical to reducing the climate pollution that is raising sea levels, increasing extreme weather events and imposing devastating consequences on people and countries around the globe . . . For the past ten years, actions by the northeast states and countless power plant owners in the region have demonstrated that reducing greenhouse emissions is not only good environmental policy, but also enhances the region’s economic prosperity by more efficiently and cost effectively making and using electricity. Our long experience in decreasing electric sector greenhouse gas emissions in New England, while also reducing energy costs, has blazed a path for EPA to follow in implementing the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

 In a moving and unusually personal essay, Ms. McCarthy explained the regulations and put them the context of her long career in Massachusetts that began with her work as a town public health agent:

I didn’t plan for a life built around protecting the environment. In fact, I started my career as a health agent in the town of Canton, Mass., and later worked for the Stoughton Board of Health. But at some point I realized that at its core, the issue of a clean environment is a matter of public health. The two are inextricably linked.

 This is the perspective that we need to embrace – focusing on the practical connection between reducing emissions and protecting the public health.  This perspective underlay the efforts to slash dangerous emissions in the Northeast and is a solid foundation for the work that EPA is now doing nationally.

And, sadly and unsurprisingly, the “Ugly” is found on Capitol Hill in Washington DC: Recently, I wrote here about what a great choice President Obama made when he nominated Ron Binz of Colorado to be a Commissioner (and the Chairman) of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Mr. Binz is a reasonable and moderate man with an even temperament, a good sense of humor, deep knowledge of the energy world, the ability to see things from a range of perspectives (drawing on his broad experience as a consumer advocate, businessman and state energy regulator) and a clear sense of how to manage the difficult transition that the energy system is experiencing.

It is therefore very disappointing that his nomination is “in trouble.” Mr. Binz is being attacked for having had incidental contact with a lobbying firm hired by others to respond to the massive and unprecedented campaign against his nomination. The closest thing to a substantive complaint against Mr. Binz is this: he has stated that if the Federal government continues to move forward with the regulation of greenhouse gases that, unless carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is perfected and made commercial for natural gas fired power plants so they can run without contributing to global warming, gas will no longer be usable as a major fuel at some point in the future.  In public remarks, that reflect very mainstream thinking in the energy industry, he noted this reality and said that absent CCS the move away from gas must begin before 2035, using the phrase “dead end” to describe the situation.  If you have an appetite for deep engagement of complex energy issues featuring Jim Rogers, the retiring CEO of Duke Energy and Mr. Binz check it out on Youtube – the “controversial” remarks used to create a phony controversy can be found around the 30 minute mark.

Given the current state of affairs on Capitol Hill it is possible, if not likely, that this excellent nomination will fail. That would be a shame indeed.

 

The Missing Fine Print in Northern Pass Clean Air Propaganda

Sep 20, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

In a full-page advertisement in yesterday’s Concord Monitor, PSNH takes its greenwashing of the Northern Pass project to new heights of hypocrisy, this time not only continuing to tout the project’s unsubstantiated climate benefits, but splashing across the page, in large letters: “BREATHE DEEPLY, GRANDKIDS.”

CaptureIn some respects, today’s advertisement is just the latest in a slick, spare-no-expense campaign designed to sell the Northern Pass project as clean and renewable—as a veritable no-brainer for anyone who cares about our energy future and the mounting threats of climate change. Nothing new here.

But coming from the owner and operator of the half-century-old Merrimack and Schiller coal-fired power plants, it’s hard to miss the rich irony in PSNH’s words of reassurance: “BREATHE DEEPLY, GRANDKIDS.”

Has PSNH somehow forgotten that, together, its coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Hampshire, racking up 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the year 2012 alone? And that its coal-fired power plants have achieved the distinction of being among the worst polluters in New England, at times accounting for as much as 90% of New Hampshire’s total toxic pollution? And that coal-fired power plants like Merrimack and Schiller Station emit large amounts of fine particulate pollution that is harmful to respiratory health?

Perhaps what PSNH really forgot was the fine print, something along the lines of: “BREATHE DEEPLY, GRANDKIDS (provided you don’t live downwind of our coal plants, when they’re operating).”  Or perhaps PSNH was really referring to future grandchildren who will benefit from the retirement of these polluting, highly uneconomic facilities. Certainly, when the Merrimack and Schiller coal plants stop operating, grandchildren, grandparents, and everyone in between will be able to breathe a little easier. But that’s not PSNH’s plan—it wants to keep these plants running indefinitely.

Evocative taglines and slick marketing aside, if PSNH really cared about a healthy, clean energy future for the people of New Hampshire, it would start by committing to sell or close its obsolete, inefficient coal-fired power plants that are unnecessarily harming the climate, public health, and New Hampshire’s economy, and by recanting its opposition to efforts to reduce power plant emissions of greenhouse gases.

Until that happens, and until PSNH provides real, meaningful information for the public to assess the environmental impacts of Northern Pass (something its new Presidential Permit application utterly fails to do), its continued claims, no matter how much money is spent delivering them, will remain what they are today: hollow and untrustworthy.

Summer 2013 intern Alice Ju contributed to this post.

Such A Deal: New Pipelines for Tar Sands Oil Bad for the Environment And Will Raise Gas Prices

Sep 4, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Anyone who follows CLF’s work knows about plans being pushed to move oil derived from tar sands in Canada through pipelines that would cut across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  The purpose of the these pipelines is simple and clear: to allow this oil to reach the sea and foreign markets that can only be reached by oil tanker.

It is easy to understand why the Canadian oil industry, and the multi-national petroleum companies with big Canadian investments, want to move the oil extracted from the Tar Sands of Western Canada out to the larger world markets: doing so will mean they make A LOT of money.  The Canadian petroleum industry has explained this for us all very helpfully in an ad found on page 2 of the June-July 2013 issue of the Canadian Public Policy and Politics magazine with the zippy name of “Policy” that we reprint here.

The ad confirms the tar-sands-oilpurpose of the wave of pipeline building being pushed by the Canadian petroleum industry (and ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, the owners of leading Canadian companies like Imperial Oil/Esso and Flint Hills Resources): to raise the price of Canadian oil up to the levels found on many global markets.  As the ad shows, using little prices tags, the price of oil in the North American market hovers around $85 a barrel at times when the same barrel of oil sells for $110 elsewhere in the world. If the producers, refiners and sellers of that oil have access to world markets they can demand that North American customers pay them the higher price if they want to buy this oil.  This reality is especially stark when you look at the fact that oil refining companies with operations in the United States just don’t care if these pipelines get built – they are fully occupied with oil extracted right here at home.  It is just Canadian companies (and the multi-national companies like ExxonMobil and Koch who own Canadian operations) who profit from the push for these pipelines.

So we know who wins if new pipelines carry Canadian oil to reach global markets: the petroleum companies who reap the higher prices found beyond the United States and Canada. But who loses?

The answer to that requires us to think both about the short-term in which we all live our day-to-day lives and the longer-term world in which future generations will have to live.

When we think about immediate and short-term concerns for our families and businesses it doesn’t get any more real than gasoline prices.

Supporters of building pipelines to move Canadian oil to market generally and the highest profile project, the Keystone XL pipeline that would move oil through the middle of the United States from Canada to the Gulf Coast, invoke gas prices as a reason for taking that step, at least implying that the new pipelines will drive down gas prices.

However,  it is well documented in a number of reports and studies that Midwestern drivers would see gasoline prices rise on the order of 42 cents a gallon if that pipeline is built. And this is not surprising – if the oil used to make gasoline is being sold (and bought) at higher prices then gasoline prices will rise.

So in the short term – the losers in this equation? Anyone who buys gasoline or relies upon goods or services that rely on gasoline or diesel fuel that are transported by car, truck, ship or airplane – in short all of us.

And that doesn’t even get into the critical longer term issue: that tapping into the tar sands oil, bringing them to market and burning them would be a large step towards the devastating climate disaster that is unfolding around us and that we need to stop.

There are those who disagree with this assessment. Some politicians argue that tar sands oil from Canada is needed to free ourselves from dependence on oil imported from volatile (and often hostile) nations overseas.  They suggest that these pipelines will simply bring it that oil to markets we, here in the U.S., draw upon, oddly ignoring the stated purpose of the pipelines to bring the oil to higher-priced offshore markets.

And there are thoughtful and detailed analyses that disagree with the climate argument about this oil.  This analysis argues that if the tar sands oil is not brought to market that it will simply be replaced by slightly-easier-to-access Venezuelan oil with a very similar carbon footprint.

That climate impact analysis, and the political argument for building pipelines to tap into tar sands oil, however ignore one important, essential and difficult option: use less oil instead. The advent of electric vehicles, smarter urban development and increases in transit use all converge to show us a way forward and off of oil. The increase in fuel economy standards, a process that is well underway, is a step on that path.

Getting off oil will not be easy.  As the social critic, songwriter and bicycle enthusiast David Byrne has noted, “From the age of the Dinosaurs, cars have run on gasoline.”  Changing something so fundamental will be hard but it is what we need to do; that is what in all of our interests, not laying new pipelines to bring ancient oil derived from the cracking and boiling of tar sands to foreign markets where it will be burned and released into the atmosphere.

 

 

Reading Your Street: What You Can Learn About Natural Gas Infrastructure

Aug 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

You’ve heard of the writing on the wall, but what is all that writing on the sidewalk and the street? You’ve seen it—yellow, orange, blue, red and white.

Some of it is pretty easy to decipher like “DS” for “Dig Safe” or “STM” for “steam” but some of the drawings look more like ancient hieroglyphics.

 

It’s incredible what’s running right beneath our feet, like an entire natural gas infrastructure, but we rarely take time to think about it.

In Massachusetts, we have over 21,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipeline running under our streets. That’s almost enough pipeline to circle all the way around the Earth. For perspective, you could drive from Boston to San Francisco and back three times and still not put 21,000 miles on your odometer.

I’ve been thinking about what’s under the street a lot over the past two years. In July 2011, I was introduced to a professor at Boston University, Nathan Phillips, who had embarked on a journey of mapping natural gas leaks in the City of Boston. Using a high tech sensor, Nathan was detecting leaks and translating them into incredible visual representations that called attention to the aging natural gas pipelines criss-crossing our city.

natural-gas-infrastructure

Maps created by Nathan Phillips of Boston University

After I saw Nathan’s maps, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the ground. Whether I was walking or biking, I started to notice all kinds of infrastructure, not just natural gas, everywhere.

There were “Gardner Boxes” in front of the houses on my street—these are one type of emergency shut-off valves for gas service lines.

natural-gas-infrastructure-Emergency-Shut-Off

Emergency Shut-Off

Then there were the large, bold, golden “G”s on the street, sometimes accompanied by CI (which stands for cast iron) or PL (for plastic) or BS (for bare steel), or CS (for coated steel) 18-in or 12-in or 3-in (telling me the diameter of the pipeline), and NGrid or NStar (the name of the company that owns the pipeline).

Suddenly, I could tell a lot about my street just from looking down. But what I couldn’t tell from the markings alone was just how important natural gas infrastructure is for a safe, thriving and sustainable neighborhood. That took some digging of a different variety.

Leaking Pipes Contribute to Climate Change

What I found was surprising and unsettling. Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas pipelines in the country. Almost 4,000 miles of the pipeline in Massachusetts is cast iron and another 3,000 is what’s known as “unprotected steel” (meaning unprotected from corrosion). These two types of pipe are referred to as “leak-prone pipe” in the industry because they are highly susceptible to breaks, fractures, and corrosion. Cast iron pipe was first installed in the 1830s, and some of the pipe in Massachusetts that is still in service dates to the Civil War. The gas utilities have started to focus on replacing this “leak-prone” pipe, especially since the tragedies in San Bruno, California and Allentown, Pennsylvania brought home how dangerous old pipelines can be.

But replacing old and leaking pipelines isn’t solely about public safety. It’s also a matter of conserving a valuable natural resource and tackling climate change. Natural gas is up to 95% methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100 year time frame. When natural gas is combusted, in your furnace or in a power plant, it emits much less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, but when it’s leaked directly into the air from a pipeline, it adds up to a significant source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Unfortunately, current methods for estimating just how much natural gas is leaking from pipelines aren’t very accurate. What we do know is that leaking pipelines in Massachusetts are releasing between 697,000 tons of CO2e and 3.6 million tons of CO2e every year. That’s a huge range, and one that we’re working to narrow with the help of Professor Phillips and his students. These leaks can also take a heavy bite out of gas customers’ pocketbooks, as a recent report prepared for Senator Ed Markey showed.

What You Can Do

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more information here about the efforts to replace leak-prone pipeline in Massachusetts and what you can do to make sure that your street is both safe and climate friendly. Until then, here are a few tips to remember:

1) Dig Safe—You never know what types of pipelines, wires, or cables may be running under your lawn or sidewalk. Dig Safe will contact the utilities so that they can mark the lines for you. Even for small projects like planting a tree, always check in with Dig Safe before you dig. It’s free, and it’s required by law to keep you and your neighbors safe. You can check the website or simply call 811 before you dig.

2) Report Leaks—If you think you smell gas, put out all open flames and do not use lighters or light matches. Do not touch electric switches, thermostats or appliances. Move to a safe environment and call your gas company or 911 to have them come check it out. Here is the contact information for Massachusetts’ three largest gas companies: Columbia GasNational Grid, and NStar Gas.

3) Conserve—It sounds simple, but using less is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the climate impacts from natural gas. Contact MassSave for a free home energy audit.

4) Contact your Legislator—Legislation is pending in Massachusetts right now that would help fix these leaks. We’re supporting H.2933 and portions of S.1580. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, you can take a look at the testimony we filed with partners like Clean Water Action.

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