Massachusetts Can’t Rely on the Northern Pass Proposal as a Short-Term Climate Solution

Christophe Courchesne

Amid new scrutiny, it’s time for Massachusetts to reckon with the elephant in its climate plan (photo credit: flickr/David Blackwell)

The 5 million ton elephant in Massachusetts’s nation-leading climate action plan – the oversold and overstated greenhouse gas emissions reductions from new imports of Canadian hydropower comprising more than 20% of the state’s goal – is too big to ignore. That’s why it’s encouraging that the plan’s misplaced reliance on the Northern Pass transmission project is receiving new scrutiny.

Last December, CLF identified a significant problem with Massachusetts’s “Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020”: it adopted and relied on Northern Pass’s sales pitch that the project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 million tons annually and then claimed all those emissions reductions for Massachusetts. After examining the basis for the 5 million ton figure, we concluded that – no way around it – the figure was just wrong; it was calculated on the false assumption – belied by Hydro-Québec’s own data – that imported hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions.  The way Massachusetts was relying on Northern Pass was dubious for other reasons, including the unfairness of Massachusetts claiming all the benefits of a project that will not be located in the state and the fact that there is no concrete commitment regarding how much Northern Pass power Massachusetts electric customers will actually receive.

In February, the problem was confirmed in a technical report (PDF) commissioned by CLF and authored by Synapse Energy Economics, which found that hydropower facilities, especially new projects being built in Québec to supply new imports into New England, have substantial greenhouse emissions – emissions that for several years after construction can be comparable to the natural gas power that Northern Pass would replace.

Last month, Massachusetts think-tank MassINC released an independent analysis (PDF) of Massachusetts’s progress in meeting its ambitious emissions reduction goal – 25% below 1990 levels by the year 2020. The conclusion: Massachusetts is making great strides in some areas, but needs to redouble its efforts if it intends to achieve the goal. One of the biggest uncertainties: the Massachusetts climate plan’s reliance on new imports of Canadian hydropower through Northern Pass.

MassINC’s new report signals, as CLF has argued, that Massachusetts must look elsewhere to secure sufficient emissions reductions by 2020. The MassINC report makes the critical point that it is not up to Massachusetts whether the Northern Pass project is built – and there are many reasons to doubt that it ever will be – not the least of which are the extensive permitting processes and the committed and well-founded community opposition that the project must overcome. Citing Synapse’s findings on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower and the higher emissions associated with new hydropower facilities, the MassINC report suggests that any reliance on new imports as an emissions reduction strategy requires a credible, scientifically sound accounting of the targeted reductions, including whether and to what extent the power will come from new hydropower projects. Massachusetts needs to temper its enthusiasm for additional hydropower imports with the same scientific rigor and attention to detail reflected in the Patrick administration’s proposed regulations for biomass power.

The MassINC report is making waves, earning the lead, front page story recently in the Boston Sunday Globe and media coverage throughout the state. Consistent with the MassINC report, CLF does not rule out the possibility that new hydropower imports – if they have minimal environmental and community impacts on both sides of the border, avoid undermining local renewable and energy efficiency, displace our dirtiest power, and provide verifiable emissions reductions – could play a constructive role in a cleaner energy future for the region, particularly when considered over the long term.

But it’s time for the Patrick administration to reconsider its unfounded confidence that Northern Pass is some kind of clean energy panacea that will deliver a fifth of all needed emissions reductions by 2020. The science is clear: it’s not.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (https://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

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