Maine PUC Chooses Polluting Pipeline Over Consumers

Ben Tettlebaum

The Maine Public Utilities Commission recently approved pursuing a contract that would force electricity consumers to subsidize Spectra Energy’s massive new polluting natural gas pipeline, Access Northeast (ANE). The PUC’s decision cuts deep into your pocketbook and sets Maine and New England on a course to upend our climate goals.

One Billion Dollars Down the Drain

A pipeline contract would lock Maine consumers into nearly two decades of paying as much as one billion dollars for this methane-spewing project. The terms of a prospective contract are still confidential and yet to be finalized. But based on the best available data, this pipeline could add nearly $8 to almost every Mainer’s monthly electric bill. Worse, the overall costs of the pipeline are nearly certain to dwarf any speculative benefits.

Access Northeast Is a Net Loser for Maine

How do we know that this pipeline is such a bad deal for Mainers? Because three separate studies commissioned by the PUC all drew the same conclusion: The costs of building Spectra’s ANE boondoggle would very likely outweigh the benefits – by well over $100 million. And the PUC’s own technical staff agreed. But, in brazen disregard of this substantial evidence, the three Governor LePage­–appointed Commissioners decided to move forward with the pipeline contract anyway, because of a short-sighted energy vision that appears to see gas as the only solution for New England, even at the risk of cannibalizing lower-cost, lower-risk alternatives.

Volatility Defines Gas and Electric Markets

 A principle characteristic of gas and electric markets is that they are in constant flux. Any savings benefit to consumers from a pipeline contract depends heavily upon the price of energy at the time the natural gas starts flowing through the new pipeline. A host of volatile and uncertain factors will affect energy prices over the next decade. Other pipeline expansions already set to come online in the next few years could suppress gas prices independent of the Spectra ANE pipeline. Increases in liquid natural gas storage, energy efficiency, and renewable energy are very likely to cut overall demand for gas. Ongoing changes in the market rules set by ISO-New England – the regional grid operator – could effectively reduce the price of gas and electricity even more than they already have. Any of these factors will make the Access Northeast project obsolete before construction is even complete, leaving Mainers stuck paying a billion dollars for a completely unnecessary pipeline over the next two decades.

The Market Is Already Solving the Problem

Two winters of spiking energy prices prompted Maine’s rush to gobble up more gas, in the mistaken belief that we needed more gas to avoid skyrocketing electricity bills. But since the winters of 2012–13 and 2013–14, energy prices have fallen sharply – thanks in part to market changes and lower fuel prices – and not to an influx of new natural gas. Overall, prices have dropped 82% in just two years.

Electricity prices have fallen sharply over the past two years – without an influx of natural gas into New England.

Electricity prices have fallen sharply over the past two years – without an influx of natural gas into New England.

Enough Is Enough

The PUC’s decision is all the more troubling considering the lower-cost, lower-risk energy options it has flouted during the LePage years. From undercutting wind contracts to lobbying against a solar bill (which the Commission’s own study concluded would benefit Maine) to slashing funding for energy efficiency, these commissioners have repeatedly turned their backs on the best interests of Maine consumers.

It’s time we said enough. CLF is committed to fighting the PUC’s gamble on gas at the expense of hard-working Mainers.

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