Political Stall Tactics Give Dirty Gas an Edge in Massachusetts

David Ismay

Massachusetts’ Department of Public Utilities, the agency charged with overseeing our utilities and protecting ratepayers’ rights (among other duties), has been pretty busy over the past year. But it hasn’t been diligently protecting consumers’ interests – instead, the Department has been hard at work rigging the state’s energy market in favor of Governor Baker’s polluting friends in the fossil fuel industry.

Welcoming Big Gas – and Big Pollution – with Open Arms
Over the past year, the Department has approved contract after contract to allow local utility companies to buy natural gas from the massive pipelines currently proposed across the state – like the oversized Kinder Morgan pipeline, which will cut through towns and landscapes from the Berkshires to Dracut.

But the Department made those approvals – over CLF’s strong opposition – without giving any thought to the impact all that new natural gas will have on our climate. Despite industry claims that natural gas is a “clean” fuel source, it’s still a fossil fuel that, when burned, emits huge volumes of greenhouse gasses that damage our climate. The threat of climate change is why Massachusetts passed a law in 2008 – the Global Warming Solutions Act – that mandates drastic reductions in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Last September, after the Department approval of the gas contracts, CLF continued its fight. We appealed those approvals to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that each approval must be reversed and withdrawn until the agency shows it is consistent with the Global Warming Solutions Act – in other words, until we know that climate-warming emissions will go down, not up, if these contracts move forward. And CLF was not alone. We were joined by two other public-interest organizations that, with CLF, filed a total of eight appeals of these approvals.

The Department’s response to the eight appeals? Five months of foot-dragging, silence and delay.

Changing the Rules in Favor of More Big Gas
While we waited, the Department sweetened the pot for Big Gas even more, granting unprecedented authority to electric companies to buy, for the first time, natural gas (by law, electric companies can only buy and sell… you guessed it, electricity). With this decision, the Department effectively green-lighted another new gas pipeline: the Spectra Energy / Eversource “Access Northeast,” which will run through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeast Massachusetts.

The Department essentially rigged the interstate gas and electricity markets, using public money – yours and mine! – to pick winners (pipeline companies and gas-fired electric generation plants) and losers (liquefied natural gas suppliers and renewables like wind).

But that kind of interference in our energy markets is illegal under both state and federal law. So CLF challenged this decision, too, appealing it to the highest court in Massachusetts. And once again, we weren’t alone – we were joined by GDF Suez, who filed an an almost identical appeal.

The Department’s response to these two additional appeals, which were filed last October? You guessed it – again silence, but for the sound of dragging feet.

Playing Politics with Our Climate Future
The Department is in fact legally obligated to respond to CLF’s now four appeals of its recent pro-natural-gas decisions – as well as the six related appeals filed by other challengers.* With Baker appointees filling two of the Department’s three commissioner seats, including the chair, it’s hard not to see the delay as part of a Baker Administration strategy to keep these appeals out of the courts. Because while we wait, these dirty energy pipeline projects get to move forward, whether they’re a good idea for Massachusetts – and New England – or not.

The questions CLF raises in our appeals mirror the discussions and debates taking place right now in the Massachusetts legislature and in towns and homes across the state. What shape will our energy future take? Will we continue to give outdated fossil fuel companies free rein to pollute our air, water, and climate? Or will we deliver the clean energy future that our changing climate demands and our children and grandchildren need?

Massachusetts’ people and communities deserve better than a Department of Public Utilities stalling for time in favor of fossil fuel interests. It’s time for Governor Baker to empower the Department to allow a meaningful debate about our energy future.

*Just last week, the Department finally responded to one of CLF’s appeals, but only after we asked Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court to intervene and force the Department’s hand.

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