Keenan’s Poison Pill Seeks to Exempt Salem Gas Plant from Permitting Process

Shanna Cleveland

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.



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8 Responses to “Keenan’s Poison Pill Seeks to Exempt Salem Gas Plant from Permitting Process”

  1. Jane Bright

    Why can’t this plant stand up to the normal permit process and scrutiny other power plants are required to pass? What is so wrong with this proposed project that it needs a sweetheart deal to make it work?

    If Rep Keenan is worried about taking a couple of extra months to go through normal permitting, that seems a small investment of time compared to being forced to live with another fossil fuel burning plant for 40 years.

  2. Jeff Barz-Snell

    Wow. While I do not approve of John Keenan’s backoffice legal maneuvers, I also do not approve of CLF’s superficial analysis here. Shanna Clevleand and Sue Reid are smarter than this. I don’t believe that they actually believe their arguments.

    The addition of a super efficient gas plant to the New England grid forces less efficient, more polluting gas and oil plants to run less. It also allows plants without the quick start technology to reduce their “spinning reserves.” You folks understand this and yet your are pursuing this public strategy. I hope the huge contributions from whomever is worth it. Whatever gas we do use to generate power should be in plants that are as efficient as possible.

    As for reducing the market for renewables, I don’t know how you can make the claim that this plant will diminish that demand with a straight face. In fact, you can’t. If anything, a plant with this sort of quick start technology is EXACTLY the sort of plant we need during the next 30 years as we scale up renewables. This plant alone could “firm” power for 1,500 MW of wind or solar power.

    So please CLF, I beg you – tell those of us who truly are alarmed about climate change and want to decarbonize the power grid here in NE – tell us YOUR plan to eliminate fossil fuels from the grid AND keep the lights on. What is the viable pathway for doing this while meeting the growing needs for electric power (i.e. electric vehicles ) here in N.E.? If you are going to stake out radical positions like this, you need to be able to articulate a plan for Mass and New England. The DOER and ISO has one idea. You must have another. Some of us are waiting to hear it.

    In the long run, I predict you are doing a diservice to the larger movement (and goals) that you serve. A rarity for CLF.

    • Shanna Cleveland

      Thank you for your interest in our advocacy. The fundamental objective of CLF’s Clean Energy and Climate Change advocacy is to bring about the transformation of our region’s energy sources away from fossil fuels and to clean energy sources as is necessary to achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 –as mandated by scientific consensus, the MA Global Warming Solutions Act and the President’s climate pollution reduction goals. Just last week at a conference addressing smart grid technologies, John Norris, a Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, eloquently conveyed the adverse impacts of new gas power plants and infrastructure in the context of those goals, and in a manner which directly applies in Massachusetts. Commissioner Norris stated,

      “I am concerned, because we are making long-term investments in both pipeline and generation facilities for utilization of gas for base-load or intermediate-load generation and if we are to reach this administration’s goals of an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050, from 2005 numbers, you can’t have this. If you take the 2005 emissions of 2,381 million megatons, an 80% reduction means we have 405 million megatons of CO2 emissions in 2050. Emissions went down in 2011 to 2,166 million megatons. Of that, 1,718 were from coal and 411 were from gas. If we project out to the electric demand of 2050 and reach that 405-million-megatons limit or goal, we cannot even have the same amount of emissions from gas as a generation source as it was in 2011.”

      The math is simple, new long-lived natural gas infrastructure cannot get us to where we need to go to mitigate ongoing climate change and the GHGs already in the atmosphere. CLF is not arguing with many of your observations about the proposed Footprint Power project in Salem, but we note the glaring absence, in both your comment and in the permit applications of Footprint Power, of any suggestion that the project will conform to the foregoing and widely shared climate goals in consideration of its useful life. As, from your comment, you and CLF both seek “to decarbonize[] the power grid in NE” perhaps you can explain where Commissioner Norris is incorrect, or more specifically, how bringing new fossil fuel supplies and infrastructure into the region in 2016, with physical useful lives of 50 or more years (new gas pipelines, as would be built as part of the Footprint project have physical useful lives close to 100 years) should reasonably be considered infrastructure that *will* decarbonize the system.

      If the position we share with Commissioner Norris is “radical” as you assert, CLF is in proud company with many thoughtful legislators, policymakers, advocates and community members in Salem and elsewhere.

  3. Stan Franzeen

    Quoting Mr. Barz-Snell above: “So please CLF, I beg you – tell those of us who truly are alarmed about climate change and want to decarbonize the power grid here in NE – tell us YOUR plan to eliminate fossil fuels from the grid AND keep the lights on. What is the viable pathway for doing this while meeting the growing needs for electric power (i.e. electric vehicles ) here in N.E.?”

    I’m also wondering what your plan is. I couldn’t find it on your web site. Please advise.

    Thank you.

  4. David Fay

    Commissioner Norris says: “If we project out to the electric demand of 2050 and reach that 405-million-megatons limit or goal, we cannot even have the same amount of emissions from gas as a generation source as it was in 2011.” Shanna Cleveland uses this as justification for opposing the construction of (presumably all) new natural gas power plants in MA.

    But Norris’ logic has a gaping hole in it. What he says would be true if electricity were generated by different sources (e.g., gas, oil, coal) over the next 37 years in the same proportions as it is today. But that’s a ludicrous assumption. With the changing costs of gas and coal in particular, everyone expects the proportions to change, no matter how we de-carbonize the grid.

    The only way the proportions of each will stay the same is to make across the board cuts to all types of plants, ignoring any possible CO2 reduction benefits of replacing coal with gas, the so-called bridge function of natural gas. It also ignores market pressures for utilities to go with the cheapest fuel.

    This particular issue is just one facet of the much larger problem of the state not having a “grand plan” to get to the 2050 levels. So what is CLF’s plan? To obstruct every new power plant for the next 37 years in the hope that renewables will grow fast enough to replace the lost electricity? And if they don’t?

  5. Scott Szycher

    Setting aside the merits of this particular project and the circumstances surrounding it (specifically, the closing of the old, dirty Salem Harbor plant, and the potential resulting energy shortage), wouldn’t giving this project exemptions from the normal permitting process serve as a possibly dangerous precedent that other power plant developers would use going forward, as more coal plants go offline?

    • Scott,

      You hit the nail on the head.

      If this plant can be permitted in a way that is consistent with the laws and policies of the Commonwealth then that case should be made through the legal process.

      A proposed special act of the legislature to exempt a particular facility from all the laws and rules that other projects have to live up to is the definition of a bad precedent. It is also, as Shanna noted, blatantly unconstitutional.

      If you, or any of the other folks commenting, want to see voluminous information about CLF’s deep and decades long work to foster the growth of clean energy resources the archived blog posts right here make an excellent starting point.

      The tactic, that other commenters have regrettably deployed, of trying to change the subject to whether “CLF has a plan for decarbonizing the electricity system of New England” (when in fact we have spoken extensively on the subject, acknowledging that there can not be one simple or magical plan, that instead a myriad of steps, plans and actions are needed) is a classic sign of people who are trying to defend the indefensible.

      Thank you for engaging this important subject in a thoughtful way.

      Seth Kaplan

  6. Jeff Barz-Snell

    Hi Seth and all,
    Thanks for your comments. A few questions and thoughts:

    1) My understanding is that the proposed plant in Salem actually did receive successfully all of its permits. I do believe the EFSB approved this plant, no? CLF objected to this decision and hence chose to appeal to the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court.

    2) Why does CLF continue to maintain that this plant is not needed for reliability when ISO-NE claims otherwise? I offer this quotation from a letter to the Mass DEP by ISO-NE, dated Aug 9, 2013, in which ISO-NE states that “CLF is simply wrong.” I offer the full excerpt here:

    “On July 8,2013, CLF submitted comments to the DEP on Footprint’s Chapter 91 variance request. Despite ISO’s publically available statement to the contrary, CLF claims that Footprint “is not necessary to ensure the continued supply of electricity to the NEMAlBoston area.,,4 CLF is simply wrong. Without Footprint, there would be a shortage of capacity in the NEMAIBoston capacity zone for the 2016 through 2017 commitment period. In other words, without Footprint, the NEMAlBoston capacity zone would not meet reliability standards.

    CLF also incorrectly claims that “[a]lthough ISO-New England found that additional capacity would be necessary to meet the NEMAlBoston supply requirements, Footprint Power is not the only choice or even the best choice to meet these needs for several reasons.,,5 The FCM is the primary means of ensuring that the region and local areas have resources to meet reliability standards. The auction is designed to send the appropriate price signals so that capacity is built where it is needed most. The process worked as intended by attracting a significant new resource in NEMAlBoston, an area that needed new resources to meet the reliability needs in the area. Without the capacity from Footprint, NEMAlBoston will be below the zone’s Local Sourcing Requirement for the 2016 to 2017 commitment period. As such, Footprint is both the only choice and the best choice at this time.”

    I thought CLF was a big proponent of the FCM and using that auction process to “steer” the market for generation.

    3) Why is that CLF criticizes others in the environmental community who point out the enormous challenge that lies ahead in “decarbonizing” the grid in terms of the technical and regulatory pathway? For the record, some of us don’t support this plant because it’s good for Salem. That is a fringe benefit. Rather we support the project because we honestly believe that it will reduce regional emissions faster over the next 30 years than if it’s not built. In fact, the region could probably use 5 or 6 more just like this plant, provided the gas lines supplying the plants are in good shape. Surely you, of all people, would acknowledge the profound challenge in putting in place the transitional technologies that will help us reduce carbon while keeping the lights on between now and 2050. If not quick-start CCGT then what? In another blog posting, I see you commenting on modernizing the grid and calling into question importing Canadian hydro.

    No one is looking for “one simple or magical plan” as you derogatively characterize other positions above. However, a comprehensive vision or proposal from one of New England’s premier environmental advocacy organizations could be helpful in this instance, don’t you think? If only for stimulating a very important long term planning and policy making exercise.

    All of us are actually looking for myriad steps and improvements that will result in major, long term and permanent reductions in emissions. I would suggest that one change in infrastructure opens up the possibility for another and the urgency of the situation requires that we try to move as quickly and efficiently as we can. Certainly quick-start CCGT plants positioned near major transmission hubs around the grid could “firm” power from distributed generation from renewables as they scale up. And these plants could perform this important role while we build the HVDC transmission network of the future AND develop not one, but hopefully ten Cape Winds!

    There is a lot of work to be done between now and 2050. CLF could be a real leader in this area, not just on a regional level but a national one.

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