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.


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.


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.

The Most Important Thing You Will Read Today – The Clearest Statement on Climate Science From the Most Definitive Source

Aug 6, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


You just can’t find a more solid, conservative, reliable and grounded group than the American Geophysical Union.  Since 1919 the AGU has been the hub of the physical sciences in the United States providing a gathering place and information exchange for earth, air and space scientists and then communicating carefully reviewed scientific information to the public and decision-makers in government, business and throughout society.

When a group like the AGU speaks through an official statement you know that every word of the statement has been scrutinized and carefully chosen to communicate important ideas and complex climate science as accurately as possible. The process of creating these statements involves hours, days, weeks and years of meetings, reviews, re-reviews and painstaking scrutiny.

This means when that when the AGU issues (as it did in 2003) and then updates (as it did again last week) its official position statement on a subject like global warming, attention should be paid. The latest version of that statement can be downloaded in PDF form from the AGU website and is “pasted” below in its entirety.

The calm and carefully chosen words of the AGU should reinforce a critical realization that immediate and dramatic action is needed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions immediately. By becoming much more efficient in our use of energy and dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we burn, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Meeting these goals will require developing dense and sustainable cities where most trips can be made on foot and convenient and affordable public transit plays a strong and supporting role as well as technological shifts to highly efficient buildings powered by renewable energy like wind and solar power.  The AGU also reminds us that even if we slash our greenhouse gas emissions very sharply and immediately we must deal with the implications of the emissions of the past and the warming that is already baked into the system, warming that is bringing us rising sea levels and extreme and disrupted weather.

The call to action that the scientists of the AGU is sounding is being heard here in New England – laws like the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards are on the books in part because of this fundamental challenge.  This legislative response to climate science is even more obvious in the case of laws specifically requiring emissions reductions – like the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.  But passing laws is only one in a series of needed steps forward.

Translating the law into regulations (as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection just refused to do when pressed by a remarkable group of kids) and then action, actually delivering on the promise of reduced pollution emissions, will not be easy.  But we really don’t have a choice . . .


Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.

Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years.

Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes.

“Human activities are changing Earth’s climate. At the global level, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases have increased sharply since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel burning dominates this increase. Human-caused increases in greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the observed global average surface warming of roughly 0.8°C (1.5°F) over the past 140 years. Because natural processes cannot quickly remove some of these gases (notably carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, our past, present, and future emissions will influence the climate system for millennia.

Extensive, independent observations confirm the reality of global warming. These observations show large-scale increases in air and sea temperatures, sea level, and atmospheric water vapor; they document decreases in the extent of mountain glaciers, snow cover, permafrost, and Arctic sea ice. These changes are broadly consistent with long-understood physics and predictions of how the climate system is expected to respond to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases. The changes are inconsistent with explanations of climate change that rely on known natural influences.

Climate models predict that global temperatures will continue to rise, with the amount of warming primarily determined by the level of emissions. Higher emissions of greenhouse gases will lead to larger warming, and greater risks to society and ecosystems. Some additional warming is unavoidable due to past emissions.

Climate change is not expected to be uniform over space or time. Deforestation, urbanization, and particulate pollution can have complex geographical, seasonal, and longer-term effects on temperature, precipitation, and cloud properties. In addition, human-induced climate change may alter atmospheric circulation, dislocating historical patterns of natural variability and storminess.

In the current climate, weather experienced at a given location or region varies from year to year; in a changing climate, both the nature of that variability and the basic patterns of weather experienced can change, sometimes in counterintuitive ways — some areas may experience cooling, for instance. This raises no challenge to the reality of human-induced climate change.

Impacts harmful to society, including increased extremes of heat, precipitation, and coastal high water are currently being experienced, and are projected to increase. Other projected outcomes involve threats to public health, water availability, agricultural productivity (particularly in low-latitude developing countries), and coastal infrastructure, though some benefits may be seen at some times and places. Biodiversity loss is expected to accelerate due to both climate change and acidification of the oceans, which is a direct result of increasing carbon dioxide levels.

While important scientific uncertainties remain as to which particular impacts will be experienced where, no uncertainties are known that could make the impacts of climate change inconsequential. Furthermore, surprise outcomes, such as the unexpectedly rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice, may entail even more dramatic changes than anticipated.

Actions that could diminish the threats posed by climate change to society and ecosystems include substantial emissions cuts to reduce the magnitude of climate change, as well as preparing for changes that are now unavoidable. The community of scientists has responsibilities to improve overall understanding of climate change and its impacts. Improvements will come from pursuing the research needed to understand climate change, working with stakeholders to identify relevant information, and conveying understanding clearly and accurately, both to decision makers and to the general public.”

Adopted by the American Geophysical Union December 2003; Revised and Reaffirmed December 2007, February 2012, August 2013.

Pipe Dreaming

Jul 16, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Vermont Gas’ proposed pipeline expansion is an ill-conceived pipe dream that would exacerbate Vermont’s contribution to climate change and fuel our continued reliance on non-renewable energy. Adding insult to injury, this fundamentally misguided expansion would pose both immediate and sustained threats to vital wetland ecosystems, state-significant natural communities, and threatened plant populations. The pipeline demands a full NEPA review and environmental impact statement, just as Governor Shumlin called for environmental review of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line reversal in a recent letter to Secretary Kerry.

As Conservation Law Foundation articulates in this letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the pipeline expansion would have undue adverse impacts on aquatic resources and fails to meet the criteria established by federal law for a Section 404 individual wetland permit.

The proposed route impacts 25.16 acres of wetlands and streams, including 5.29 acres of Class II wetlands deemed “significant” under the Vermont Wetland Rules and an additional 6.22 acres of Class II wetland buffers. Testimony from Alan Quackenbush, Wetlands Program Manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation, says trenching poses permanent risks to wetland hydrology:

“If the hydrology changes or the soil layers are not removed and replaced in order, these impacts will be permanent.”

Vermont Gas plans to use open cut trenching throughout the majority of the pipeline route, even though horizontal directional drilling (HDD) is a far less environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Despite the availability of HDD, the invasive open trenching method will be used in areas up to 75 feet wide, including parts of state-significant natural communities.

Even testimony submitted by Vermont Gas recognizes the “permanent Project impacts” to state-significant natural communities. These permanent impacts extend to four areas, totaling 3.68 acres, of Pine-Oak-Heath Sandplain Forest designated by ANR as an S1 “extremely rare natural community.” Vermont Gas testimony acknowledges that this ecosystem is “appropriate to be considered RINA,” or a Rare and Irreplaceable Natural Area under 10 V.S.A. § 6086(a)(8).

Testimony from botanist Robert Popp adds that the pipeline construction and permanent removal of forest canopy pose risks to seven state-listed “Threatened” plant species, as well as an additional seven “Rare” species:

“There is concern about the pipeline acting in some areas as a conduit for invasive, exotic species to spread into the interior of what were formerly unfragmented forests and wetlands.”

We’ve been down this road before – the pipeline would rely in part on sections of the same wetland-rich right-of-way of the thwarted CIRC Highway project. The EPA came down hard on the CIRC’s wetland impacts:

“Even if the mitigation were fully implemented, the proposed project will cause or contribute to significant degradation of waters of the U.S. in violation” of federal law.

Vermont needs to maintain in tact wetland ecosystems and actively pursue forward-thinking climate solutions. Let’s wake up from this pipe dream before we get sucked down its slippery slope. 

Zombie Talking Point on Northern Pass Climate Benefits Rises Again

Jul 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Northern Pass Zombie

(photo credit: flickr/macwagen)

With last month’s Northern Pass route announcement and last week’s filing of an amended application for a Presidential Permit, Northeast Utilities and PSNH have repackaged and repeated the very same arguments for the project that have filled air waves and op-ed pages throughout New England for nearly three years. We keep hearing the same sales pitch—cleaner air, a more reliable grid, economic prosperity, low-cost energy—with the same numbers: 5 million fewer tons of carbon pollution, 1,200 jobs, and millions in energy savings and tax revenue.

From a distance, the claims look real enough; on closer inspection, it becomes clear that they were born in a long-gone energy landscape and are aggressively deceptive. And they live not only in Northern Pass’s marketing materials, but in the disseminations of Northern Pass’s cadre of PSNH-aligned supporters, such as this recent op-ed by an avowed clean energy opponent who worked for a group that calls climate change “pseudo-science.”

CLF and others have been examining and debunking these talking points for a long time. But like zombies, they keep coming back. And there is perhaps no uglier member of Northern Pass’s living dead than the claim that Northern Pass will reduce carbon pollution by up to 5 million tons per year.

The number is an estimate of the carbon dioxide emissions from the typically natural gas power that Northern Pass imports would displace in our regional energy mix, based on a 2010 market modeling report by an economic consultant hired by Northern Pass—a report that, despite numerous references to it in the project’s amended application, no longer appears on Northern Pass’s website but is available here (25 MB PDF). The estimate assumes four things:

Assumption No. 1: Northern Pass power would not result in any carbon dioxide emissions. (See pp. 5 and 34 of the report.)

This is unequivocally wrong. Scientific research conducted by Hydro-Québec scientists and published in peer reviewed journals says just the opposite. The science confirms that, by flooding vast areas of boreal forests, new large-scale hydropower facilities have net greenhouse gas emissions (from the decomposition of flooded biological material, the elimination of forest carbon “sinks,” and other sources) that may initially exceed those of natural gas power plants and that, despite declining and producing fewer net greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas over time, may continue at meaningful levels even over the long term. Northern Pass’s continued “zero-carbon” assumption is dishonest and cynical, especially given the fact that Northeast Utilities has submitted summaries of the very same research findings on hydropower emissions to regulatory authorities and has steadfastly refused to change its marketing materials despite CLF’s effort to point out the error.

Assumption No. 2: Over the next ten years, New England’s energy market will look like government forecasts predicted in 2010. (See pp. 23-24 of the report.)

Northern Pass’s 5 million ton estimate is highly dependent on outdated modeling of an energy market that no longer exists. Its consultant report was prepared three years ago—in 2010—with U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts of energy commodity prices, including natural gas prices approaching $7 per million cubic feet by 2022. The forecast price of natural gas is crucial to predicting how Northern Pass power will affect New England’s energy market because that price helps determine the market price of electricity in New England. Since 2010, domestic natural gas supplies have driven down prices, and the EIA’s forecast has changed dramatically, now estimating that average prices won’t crack $5 until 2026. (The spot natural gas price today is well below $4; the 2010 projection for 2013 was $6.13.) While CLF and many other stakeholders are deeply concerned about proposed long-term investments in natural gas (and their climate impacts), there is no denying that the fuel’s role in the region’s energy market is different than what was predicted in 2010.

In addition to lower power prices in New England, the report failed to account for the availability of an additional path for Hydro-Québec to export its power—the Champlain Hudson Power Express—which won approval from New York officials earlier this year and is in the process of obtaining federal permits.

All this means is that Hydro-Québec will likely sell less power into New England than previously estimated, replacing (by Northern Pass’s own logic) less natural gas power and its associated pollution.

Assumption No. 3: Hydro-Québec will continue to build more hydropower facilities, including the Romaine River dams that are under construction, which will facilitate additional exports to the United States. (See pp. 2 and 28 of the report)

The report on which Northern Pass’ claimed 5 million ton greenhouse gas reduction is based explains that “[i]n reality, the additional transmission capacity provided by [Northern Pass] could lead to additional development of resources to support exports from Québec….” In fact, the 5 million ton estimate is only that high because it includes emissions reductions (which are inflated for the reasons identified above) that will happen if Hydro-Québec develops new hydropower projects and as a result has more surplus energy available than it does today. (If not, the report itself predicts emissions reductions of only about half the 5 million ton estimate.) The assumption suggests that Hydro-Québec will rely on a succession of new projects –the Eastmain-Rupert River complex just completed, the Romaine River complex under construction, and the Magpie and Petit-Mécatina complexes that are in Hydro-Quebec’s strategic plan—to feed exports to New England.

With this context, the 5 million ton estimate is even more unrealistic because the short-term greenhouse gas emissions of new projects are worse than older facilities. The assumption of new projects in Canada is noteworthy as well because, while consistent with sworn testimony by a Northeast Utilities executive about the source of Northern Pass power, it is directly at odds with Northern Pass’s repeated refrain that Northern Pass power will merely be excess “system power” from Hydro-Québec and won’t require the construction of new hydropower facilities. (See p. 6, footnote 1 of the amended application.)

Assumption No. 4: There won’t be any greenhouse gas emissions associated with the energy that Québec’s other neighbors may need when Northern Pass comes online and more Hydro-Québec power flows to New England.

Where would Hydro-Québec sell its energy without Northern Pass, and what power sources other than Hydro-Québec power will those places use if Northern Pass is built? Whether Northern Pass has any climate benefit depends on the answers. The report’s estimate of increased Hydro-Québec power sales into New England predicts that New England will get power that would otherwise flow to New York and Ontario. (See p. 27 of the report.) In both markets, natural gas is the marginal fuel, meaning that it both sets energy prices and tends to be the power source that makes up for unavailable sources. In other words, it would be reasonable to assume that natural gas power plants in New York and Ontario will run more if Northern Pass is built and shifts Hydro-Quebec’s exports to New England. Northern Pass’s 5 million ton greenhouse gas reduction estimate wrongly assumes that other regions’ replacement power won’t have any carbon emissions—in fact, it doesn’t address this critical issue at all. Because climate change is a global phenomenon, what we have here looks like a shell game: the supposed climate benefits of Northern Pass from displacing natural gas power in New England could very well be cancelled out by power plants in other regions burning natural gas (or other fossil fuels).

With all these assumptions in the open, Northern Pass’s 5 million ton estimate is, in a word, indefensible. Northern Pass’s strategy of endlessly repeating this 5 million ton fabrication—to investors, to permitting agencies, and to the public— signals that Northern Pass version 2.0 will be pursued with exactly the same adversarial, greenwashing tactics that accompanied version 1.0. Worse, it reflects apparent contempt on the part of Northeast Utilities and PSNH for well-informed dialogue regarding a key supposed benefit of their project.

And we certainly need a rational, fact-based dialogue as the region embarks on what CLF hopes will be a productive and rigorous process for considering the merits of and best options for importing more large-scale hydropower from Canada. A clear-eyed regional approach requires real, well-grounded numbers addressing pollution and economic impacts. (The now-revived permitting process for Northern Pass needs them, too.)

Zombies need not apply.

Connecticut Moves (Mostly) Ahead on Clean Energy

Jul 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On July 8, 2013 the Governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy stepped up to the microphone and made a series of major announcements about the critical topic of energy.

Connecticut Clean Energy

Governor Malloy’s first task at the podium was to present the law he had just signed which set in place and partially implemented a Comprehensive Energy Strategy for the Nutmeg State. As CLF said in our press statement, this new law position Connecticut to take critical steps toward reaping the benefits of energy efficiency, our strongest, best and most widely available renewable resource.  The State can create the much-needed jobs and consumer savings it seeks by ramping up the state’s electricity and natural gas efficiency programs, rather than rushing to build costly and unnecessarynew natural gas infrastructure. Under its energy strategy Connecticut is moving to foster some great infrastructure, like charging stations for electric vehicles, but is also taking some very questionable steps towards building new natural gas pipes that will last for decades – long after we will have had to kick the fossil fuel habit if we are going to avert climate disaster.

The second subject of the announcement by Governor Malloy was the official launch of a large-scale purchase of energy from wind and solar power projects.  Thanks to this purchase, Connecticut residents will benefit from cleaner air, more stable energy prices and new, green jobs. This initiative allows Connecticut to join with Massachusetts to purchase energy ‘in bulk’ and have each state recognize the considerable economic benefits of regional collaboration. Connecticut’s purchase seeks to bring under contract wind power capable of producing over 500 Megawatts of electricity – which means that during peak wind conditions those wind farms will be producing more power than the mammoth and obsolete oil and coal power plants that blight the waterfronts of Bridgeport and Norwalk.  However, as we also noted in our statement, the renewable energy law which enables the purchase contains potential pitfalls alongside its promise of new wind and solar development, especially as regarding imports of large hydropower from Canada.  Butif implemented correctly, the renewable energy purchase will ensure that hydropower imports will complement rather than inhibit homegrown wind and solar development.

Connecticut Clean Energy

The Mars Hill Windfarm in Maine.

CLF is proud to have played a role in moving the renewable energy purchase forward and reducing the risk that imported hydropower will be used inappropriately. We look forward to working to ensure that this balance is maintained with imported hydropower playing an important supporting role behind wind and solar power while displacing fossil fuel fired power generation.

Natural Gas — A Bridge or a Minefield?

Jul 1, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday June 23 edition of the Rutland Herald /Times Argus.

Conflicting and confusing information is nothing new when it comes to climate change or big energy projects. The role of natural gas in meeting our energy needs is but the latest guest to this party.

Like most things in life, natural gas itself is neither all good nor all bad. True, natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fuel with fewer emissions than coal or oil. And currently natural gas prices are lower compared to oil. As a source for electricity, gas can be quickly brought on and off line and so fills a useful niche to balance intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind. But these benefits are only part of the equation.

Relatively clean-burning does not mean clean. 

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It contributes to climate change in very significant ways. The main component of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas 25 to 75 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its ability to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.

The real damage comes from natural gas leaks.

And they occur. When an average leak rate of 3 percent is taken into account for the full natural gas life cycle — from the time it leaves the ground to the time it burns in your furnace or range — it turns out that increasing the supply of natural gas significantly increases emissions. That is not good for our climate.

Lower cost comes at a high price.

Natural gas prices are now low partly because of abundant supplies from fracking, an extraction method that uses water, sand and chemicals to force gas out of the ground. Vermont banned fracking because of concerns about the impact to water and the environment. But this practice continues elsewhere, and supplies used in Vermont come from fracked sources.

In Vermont, a proposed expansion of natural gas will cut through valuable wetlands and farmland in Addison and Chittenden Counties. Future plans include putting a pipeline across Lake Champlain, a development that would increase greenhouse gas emissions by more than 3 million tons over the life of the project — the equivalent of adding a half-million cars to the road.

One of the biggest problems of increasing our reliance on natural gas is that the pipes we put in place now will still be here to deliver gas in 50 to 100 years. Yet in that timeframe we must solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels — including natural gas.

Regionally across New England, momentum is developing to expand or build new gas pipelines. But rushing to build bigger pipes is not the answer. We can do better than throw up our hands and blindly accept expensive and environmentally damaging new pipelines at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels. Recognizing the impacts and providing offsets for any expansions that do occur is a must.

The first step should be to repair leaks and honestly account for and address emissions. It makes no sense to build expensive, bigger pipes while customers needlessly pay for gas and pollution that escape into the air.

The next step is to use gas and all fossil fuels wisely. By dramatically increasing efficiency, most homes and businesses could cut use by 20 to 30 percent. That would significantly reduce the need for more supply.

Finally, let’s make sure any new project helps and doesn’t hurt our climate and environment. We should keep sensitive and valuable environmental resources off the table.

We should limit supplies from fracking, and require offsets to reduce overall emissions for any new pipeline so we don’t add to our climate problems.

Natural gas will play an important role in our energy supply over the next decade, but let’s make sure it is a role that leads to a cleaner and healthier planet.

An Insulting “New Route” for Northern Pass

Jun 27, 2013 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

Northern Pass New Route

Northern Pass’s “new route”

Today, we learned from PSNH President Gary Long about the Northern Pass transmission project’s long-awaited “new route.” As predicted, the “new route” hardly changes the original proposal and corrects none of its serious flaws. You can read CLF’s official statement on the announcement here.

It’s critical to see Mr. Long’s announcement for what it is: a desperate (one might say “last ditch”) effort to resuscitate his company, PSNH, and its failing business model of operating inefficient and costly power plants on the backs of New Hampshire households and small businesses, leading to the highest energy rates in the region. True to form, PSNH parent company Northeast Utilities and its shareholders would still collect the lucrative fees from Northern Pass partner Hydro-Québec, while PSNH customers, who have to live with the project, would likely see even higher rates if Northern Pass were built and PSNH’s power plants continue to operate (and pollute) as they do today. Nothing about today’s announcement changes that reality.

The “improvements” announced today involve moving a small portion of the project’s path through the northernmost towns in New Hampshire (a forty-mile stretch where an entirely new transmission corridor would be constructed) and include 8 miles of new underground lines, less than 5% of the overall route, to be buried in publicly-owned roads. Designed to make the project marginally less offensive to a few communities, these pathetically modest revisions are all PSNH can show for itself after two years and millions of dollars of closed-door land deals. Notably, Northern Pass does not currently have rights to use state and local roads and will seek them during the permitting process. In other words, Northern Pass could not find enough willing landowners to secure a complete route. Unaffected by the changes announced today, Northern Pass’s overhead lines would still cross the protected White Mountain National Forest, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Pondicherry division of the Conte National Wildlife Refuge, and Bear Brook and Pawtuckaway State Parks, among other state lands and conservation areas.

Filled with gauzy statements about working with stakeholders and using precisely the same song and dance we’ve been hearing since 2010 regarding the project’s supposed benefits (complete with deliberate falsehoods about emissions reductions), Mr. Long’s announcement follows two years of adversarial, scorched earth tactics by PSNH, and PSNH affiliate Northern Pass Transmission LLC, like gaming the federal permitting process, attacking land conservation efforts, and blatantly misrepresenting the project’s support and its illusory economic and environmental benefits.

In this context, it’s not surprising that PSNH can’t keep its story straight. For example, Mr. Long is continuing to insist that Northern Pass needs no subsidies, even as the economic reality has changed and Northeast Utilities lobbyists have spent the last year fighting for subsidies to keep the project on track.

Likewise, the new plan to bury 8 miles of the project is flatly at odds with Northern Pass’s repeated insistence (including in a legal filing with the Department of Energy) that any burial would be too expensive. If burial is beneficial and practical for communities and stakeholders along a portion of the route, much more of the project – if not the whole line – should be sited underground, as Governor Hassan suggests in her first reaction to the route announcement.

Unfortunately, the new route moves the project no closer to a genuine solution that would bring meaningful economic and environmental benefits to New Hampshire and real progress toward a clean energy future for New England. It was just last week that CLF expressed cautious optimism that the region could benefit from imports of large hydropower from Canada, if the deals, policies and projects were done right. What is now clear: the “new and improved” Northern Pass project is nothing new, and isn’t the solution.

EPA Must Follow the Law, Set Rules for Power Plants

May 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

While harm from climate change becomes more apparent every day, EPA is dragging its feet in setting much-needed limitations on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. This failure is a plain violation of the Clean Air Act. So CLF recently took the first step to spur EPA into action. Working with attorneys at Clean Air Task Force, we let EPA know that if it does not act, we will sue.

Kite on Marconi Beach

Kite on Marconi Beach, courtesy of EandJsFilmCrew @ Flickr. Recent extreme weather caused significant damage at Cape Cod’s Marconi Beach.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to issue regulations limiting emissions of air pollutants that may “endanger public health or welfare.” We know well that greenhouse gases drive climate change and therefore endanger public health and welfare in many ways: droughts pose risks to our food supply; sea level rise increases flooding of vulnerable communities; and extreme weather events threaten to wash coastal infrastructure out to sea. Nevertheless, during the early and mid-2000s, EPA all but ignored greenhouse gases. Many states and environmental groups (including CLF) sued to make EPA do something.

First, we argued, greenhouse gases are air pollutants subject to EPA regulation. Second, we said, EPA had to decide one way or the other whether greenhouse gases were dangerous; if so, the Clean Air Act imposes an absolute duty on EPA to regulate them. In a fine opinion by now-retired Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court agreed with us: greenhouse gases are pollutants subject to EPA regulation, and EPA had to decide whether they are dangerous. Two years later, EPA decided that greenhouse gases do, in fact, pose a danger to public health. This means EPA is required by law to regulate them.

After all that, EPA did begin to regulate greenhouse gases. However, it did not limit emissions from the single largest category of greenhouse gas polluters – power plants – which account for nearly 40% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. If any polluters need robust regulation, power plants do. Finally, after more pushing from CLF and other environmental organizations, EPA published proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions by power plants.

Under the Clean Air Act, these proposed standards started a clock – EPA had one year to issue final rules. Instead, EPA announced on Day 364 that the final rules would be delayed indefinitely. This delay is both illegal and wrong. EPA now has sixty days to fix its error and issue final rules that seriously address the most pressing problem of our time.

If it does not, CLF and Clean Air Task Force will turn to federal court to compel EPA to act.

Worth Remembering: Northern Pass Would Mean Big Changes in the White Mountains

May 8, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

(photo credit: flickr/crschmidt)

(photo credit: flickr/crschmidt)

With the Northern Pass “new route” drama entering its third year (Northeast Utilities executives once again failed to announce any progress on last week’s investor conference call), it’s important to remember that all we’ve been talking about is the northernmost forty miles of what is a 180-mile project that stretches from the Canadian border to southeastern New Hampshire.

The “new route” will not change one of the proposed Northern Pass project’s most troubling segments: approximately 10 miles through the White Mountain National Forest, within the towns of Easton, Lincoln, and Woodstock. It goes without saying that the Forest is one of New Hampshire’s most treasured public assets: a vast and magnificent wilderness that is among the most accessible and visited natural wonders in the nation and the cornerstone of the state’s tourist and recreation economy. The Forest is an awe-inspiring place, and its ongoing stewardship is one of those things that make me profoundly proud of this country.

Project affiliate Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) has a “special use permit” from the United States Forest Service for an existing transmission line, built in 1948, which is largely comprised of H-frame wooden poles standing about 50 feet tall. Northern Pass developer Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) is now seeking a special use permit to remove the existing line and build two new sets of towers (one carrying the new Northern Pass transmission line and the other carrying the existing line) with a “typical” height of 85 feet.

Proposed Northern Pass tower design (existing towers in background)

Proposed Northern Pass tower design (existing towers in background)

You can read NPT’s permit application here (PDF) and download its attachments here. The project’s construction would impact important wildlife habitat and ecologically sensitive high-altitude wetlands, and the new more prominent towers would cross the Appalachian Trail and impact a number of the Forest’s other signature hiking areas and viewsheds. It’s also worth noting that the project’s failure to provide meaningful greenhouse gas emission reductions falls particularly hard on the Forest, where climate change is already shifting seasons, reducing snowpack levels, and disrupting mountain ecosystems in significant ways.

It will be up to the United States Forest Service – and specifically the supervisor of the White Mountain National Forest  – to decide whether to approve NPT’s permit application. In particular, the Forest Service must determine whether granting the proposed use is “in the public interest” and consistent with the current management plan for the Forest, which includes special protections for the Forest’s most important natural and scenic resources. This decision will follow the United States Department of Energy’s environmental review of the Northern Pass project as a whole, which CLF has been fighting to improve since the project was first announced in 2010.

Earlier this year, a diverse coalition of conservation organizations, including CLF, along with a grassroots group, several Forest communities, and the regional land use planning commission wrote to the Forest Service, urging the agency to take all available steps at its disposal to ensure comprehensive and rigorous scrutiny of the Northern Pass project and a full analysis of all reasonable alternatives, especially those alternatives that avoid or minimize impacts within the Forest.

Our letter (PDF) highlighted the Forest Service’s stewardship obligations and the special and stringent standards for granting a special use permit. We explained that the Northern Pass project, as proposed, is very different from an ordinary utility transmission line constructed to extend service or improve system reliability; the project is much more like a private commercial development, with no specific policy or law encouraging or requiring its development. We suggested that it was critical for the Forest Service to take these features into account as it weighs whether the project would be consistent with the “public interest” and the Forest’s management plan. Finally, we recommended that the Forest Service avoid relying on data collected by the first contractor hired to conduct the federal environmental review of the project, which was withdrawn by NPT after a public uproar, and that the Forest Service exercise its prerogative to order Forest-specific studies and to scrutinize and question all data and analysis presented by the current contractor team, the objectivity of which is in serious doubt.

Oddly, the federal environmental review of Northern Pass seems to be moving forward even as the project is stalled and the northernmost route has not been disclosed. As field work, studies, and analysis proceed, the Forest Service is hearing from many voices registering strong opposition to Northern Pass’s special use permit application, through efforts like and this recent citizen-generated petition. If you are concerned about the impacts of the Northern Pass project on the White Mountains, you can add your voice through those resources or by filing a comment with the United States Department of Energy.

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