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.