natural gas

Explosive dependence

Gas-valve cover in Boston.

Gas-valve cover in Boston.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary, in

The recent natural-gas emergency on Aquidneck Island calls to mind the need for New England to accelerate its slow move away from polluting and flammable (and, in the case of gas, explosive) fossil fuel brought from far away and toward local renewable sources, which means mostly wind and solar power. Of course, this will require steady improvement in battery technology and much new construction, onshore and offshore. Ultimately, electricity from these sources will provide all of the electricity needed to run our homes, including heat, and do it cleanly.

Making New England less dependent on fossil fuel is not only good for the environment but it strengthens its economy by making it more energy-independent. And consider that the companie

Meanwhile there’s the good news that commercial fishermen are talking with Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind (which took over Deepwater Wind) on how to ease the interactions between offshore wind companies and the fishermen. The fishermen’s group is called the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance and represents fishermen from Maine to North Carolina.

While recreational fishermen tend to like the sort of offshore wind operation that’s up off Block Island because the wind-turbine supports act as reefs that lure fish, commercial fishermen are leery that wind farms will limit their ability to move around. Their fears are exaggerated but must be addressed. Of course, they, too, would benefit from the fact that wind farms tend to attract fish.

What the fishermen should really worry about is the Trump administration’s push for drilling for oil and gas off the East Coast. While a big offshore wind farm might inconvenience some commercial fishermen, think about what a big oil spill would do….

Tim Faulkner: Nature is a lousy 'bridge fuel'

By TIM FAULKNER, for ecoRI News (

A new report concludes what has long been suspected about natural gas: Leaks of methane during the extraction and transportation process eliminate any climate benefits from the supposed low-carbon fuel.

“These findings should lead policymakers to reject natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ and instead to redouble America’s efforts to repower with truly clean energy from the sun, the wind and other sources of renewable energy,” according to the report “Natural Gas and Global Warming” compiled by the environmental advocacy groups Environment America and the Toxics Action Center.

Their research analyzed studies of both fracking and traditional extraction of natural gas from mining sites across the country. Aircraft-based sampling across Colorado's Front Range found a 4.1 percent leakage rate. Production sites in southwestern Pennsylvania had a 7 percent leakage rate, according to the report.

The report also questions previous studies of leakage by the Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Texas for underestimating natural-gas leakage. The 22-page report also calls into doubt the claim that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, by producing less carbon than oil and coal. Both Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker support natural gas a bridge fuel.

Although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide when burned, it generates higher carbon emissions than traditional fossil fuels when the full life cycle of natural gas is considered. Leaks during extraction, storage and transportation of natural gas release greenhouse-gas emissions that equal some 250 new coal-fired power plants, according to the report.

Methane, the primary gas in natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, and the report emphasizes the near-term impacts of methane leaks that can occur from 29 different activities and equipment that natural gas goes through during its life as a fuel.

“Temperature increases over the next few decades have the potential to push the climate past ‘tipping points’ — such as the release of methane deposits in the ocean or Arctic permafrost — that could further trigger warming,” according to the report.

Environment America suggests that the rapid growth of the wind and solar industries presents an opportunity for a rapid shift away from natural gas. The advocacy group points to the wave of new natural-gas infrastructure projects as a threat to a low-carbon energy future.

“New fracked gas infrastructure proposed across the region threatens our climate future, our health and our neighborhoods,” Ben Weilerstein, of the Toxics Action Center, said during a July 27 press conference outside the Rhode Island Statehouse.

The event was one of seven held recently across southern New England to protest natural-gas pipeline and infrastructure projects. At another press event on July 27, this one in Massachusetts at the New Bedford Harbor Walk, Sylvia Broude, executive director of Toxics Action Center, said, “For years, communities on the frontlines of proposed pipelines, power plants, compressor stations and LNG terminals have been told by the fossil-fuel lobby and politicians that gas is a low-carbon bridge to a clean energy future. Today, it’s clearer than ever that this is not the case. New fracked-gas infrastructure proposed across the region threatens our climate future, our health, and our neighborhoods. It’s time to double down on clean local renewable-energy sources right here in New England."

In Rhode Island, new fossil-fuel projects include a natural-gas power plant and the expansion of a pipeline compressor station, both in Burrillville, and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing facility on the Providence waterfront. Rehoboth, Mass., is being asked to host a new compressor station. A new LNG storage facility is proposed for Acushnet, Mass.

“These new fracked-gas proposals on the South Coast are nothing more than a money-making scheme for the fossil-fuel industry,” said Rachel Mulroy, an organizer with the Fall River, Mass.-based Coalition for Social Justice and a board member for South Coast Neighbors United, which formed out of concerns about Spectra Energy’s LNG proposal in Acushnet.

Tim Faulkner, for ecoRI News: Gas-pipeline debate goes on and on

Both sides on the natural gas-pipeline debate are pushing ahead on the issue.

Gov. Charlie Baker wants the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to investigate how utility companies can buy more natural-gas contracts, which, in turn, helps finance construction of natural-gas pipelines.

In an April 2 letter, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources states, “Pipelines also are not willing to build new capacity without having long-term contracts in place. Hence, there has been insufficient assurance for pipeline companies to take the steps necessary to build capacity for natural gas-fired electric generators, despite the increasing natural gas demand for heating and as a source of supply for electric power in Massachusetts and New England.”

The letter tells the state utility regulators that action is needed to ease price spikes brought on by the high demand for winter heating. Home heating has priority over natural gas used for fueling electric plants. And as area coal and nuclear plants shut down, natural gas is taking up the slack. All of which is increasing calls across the Northeast for more capacity — natural-gas pipelines.

A new pipeline planned by Kinder Morgan across northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, and the expansion of Spectra Energy’s Algonquin pipeline through Connecticut, Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts are expected to ease the crunch.

Since he took office, Baker has called for an energy summit among New England governors to advocate moving forward on these projects and explain how they would be funded.

But other voices are saying more natural gas isn’t the simple solution. On his last day in office, then-Gov. Deval Patrick released a report offering several scenarios for meeting future energy needs and easing price volatility. The report suggested more natural-gas pipelines for the region but also noted that the quantity needed is well below the volume proposed in current pipeline plans. The new influx of the fossil fuel also makes it hard for the state to meet its greenhouse-gas reduction targets, according to the report.

Opponents say this heavy reliance on natural gas makes electric and gas bills more vulnerable to price increases, not less. There’s also evidence that new pipelines and expansion projects are being built to export the natural gas through Canada.

If that happens, the environmental impacts are simply shifted elsewhere, said Kathryn Eiseman, president of the anti-pipeline group, Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc. “It’s a disaster from a climate perspective. Even though the gas isn’t being burned here it’s being burned somewhere else.”

Political opposition is also gaining momentum. On April 2, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to hold new hearings, after the agency’s March 3 approval of the Algonquin pipeline project.

This request came shortly after Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and other Massachusetts elected officials called for new public meetings.

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council also recently sent notice to FERC, explaining that a section of its Atlantic Bridge pipeline project in Little Compton, R.I., will require a coastal-wetlands review.

This originated at ecoRI News, where Tim Faulkner is a reporter and writer.


Marc Brown: New England's shortsighted electricity policies

This wholesale electricity costs haven’t reached the historic levels seen during the 2013-2014 winter, but that doesn’t mean that all is well with New England’s electricity markets. We still have the highest regional electricity costs in the United States, and impending capacity shortages will be a challenge to policymakers for years to come.

ISO-New England, which operates New England’s power grid, has repeatedly warned that 8,000 megawatts (25 percent) of New England’s electricity capacity has either retired or is “at-risk” of retiring. ISO’s calculations don’t include Pilgrim (Massachusetts) or Millstone (Connecticut) nuclear plants, which represent an additional 2,500 mw that some experts have considered to be at risk of closing.

How did we get here? Over the past 15 years, New England has implemented short-sighted electricity policies that have led to a hodgepodge of mandates and regulations that favor renewable energy generation and state-decreed long-term contracts between electricity suppliers and renewable electricity generators.

A significant factor in the premature closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was the continued expansion of the renewable portfolio standard and purchase power agreements that accompany them. Add that to the federal production tax credits that benefit wind farms, giving them a $50/mwh head start on their competitors in the marketplace. This allows them to submit negative bids into the market, artificially depressing prices, which provides short-term savings, but ultimately leads to more base load retirements and long-term pain for ratepayers.

So why have electricity prices not reached the historic heights of last winter? Two reasons: First, it has not been as cold this winter and this has put less pressure on electricity demand. Second, and more importantly, we have had an increase in liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports mainly due to the inclusion of LNG in the winter reliability program.

The winter reliability program was implemented last winter (without LNG) and was largely responsible for keeping the lights on during last winter’s cold snap. It has played a similarly important role this January. This out-of-market program is designed to incentivize oil, natural gas and dual-fueled generators to carry inventory (oil) or to contract for fuel (LNG), ensuring that they have sufficient fuel reserves to operate when called upon.

Last summer, New England’s winter LNG strip prices were being offered with the highest forward prices, which means that LNG tankers from Trinidad chose New England over Europe or Asia. The Northeast Gateway, an LNG receiving facility located 13 miles off of the coast of Boston, has provided the region with an additional 1 billion cubic feet of LNG this winter from a facility that has laid dormant since the spring of 2010.

We can thank ISO’s changes to the winter reliability program for the increased LNG supplies, but is this a long-term solution? While the program has kept the lights on and the influx of LNG supplies have suppressed prices this winter, it would be foolhardy to depend on LNG imports as a long-term solution to future electricity supply shortages.

The ongoing debate on electricity prices has focused on natural gas pipeline expansion because of our growing reliance on natural gas for generation. There have been a number of pipeline projects proposed throughout New England, but proposals like Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct Project have been met with fierce opposition from residents in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

When faced with policy decisions, our elected officials need to answer one simple question: Will passing this bill raise the cost of electricity? If the answer to that question is yes, then their vote on the bill needs to be no. Until that happens, we will continue to lose jobs to other parts of the country. For those who disagree, maybe you should speak to the thousands of out-of-work millworkers in Maine or machinists in New Hampshire and hear what they have to say.

Marc Brown is executive director of the New England Ratepayers Association.

Llewellyn King: Bad news for climate: U.S. nuclear plants closing


This will be a bleak Christmas for the small Vermont community of Vernon. It is losing its economic mainstay. Entergy, the owner of the midsize nuclear plant there, which has sustained the community for 42 years,  is closing the plant. Next year the only people working at the plant will be those shuttering it, taking out its fuel, securing it and beginning the process of turning it into a kind of tomb, a burial place for the hopes of a small town.

What may be a tragedy for Vernon may also be a harbinger of a larger, multilayered tragedy for the United States.

Nuclear – Big Green – is one of the most potent tools we have in our battle to clean the air and arrest or slow climate change over time. I've named it Big Green because that is what it is: Nuclear-power plants produce huge quantities of absolutely carbon-free electricity.

But many nuclear plants are in danger of being closed. Next year, for the first time in decades, there will be fewer than 100 making electricity. The principal culprit: cheap natural gas.

In today’s market, nuclear is not always the lowest-cost producer. Electricity was deregulated in much of the country in the 1990s, and today electricity is sold at the lowest cost, unless it is designated as “renewable” -- effectively wind and solar, whose use is often mandated by a “renewable portfolio standard,” which varies from state to state.

Nuclear falls into the crevasse, which bedevils so much planning in markets, that favors the short term over the long term.

Today’s nuclear-power plants operate with extraordinary efficiency, day in day out for decades, for 60 or more years with license extensions and with outages only for refueling. They were built for a market where long-lived, fixed-cost supplies were rolled in with those of variable cost. Social utility was a factor.

For 20 years nuclear might be the cheapest electricity. Then for another 20 years, coal or some other fuel might win the price war. But that old paradigm is shattered and nuclear, in some markets, is no longer the cheapest fuel -- and it may be quite few years before it is again.

Markets are great equalizers, but they're also cruel exterminators. Nuclear- power plants need to run full-out all the time. They can’t be revved up for peak load in the afternoon and idled in the night. Nuclear plants make power 24/7.

Nowadays, solar makes power at given times of day and wind, by its very nature, varies in its ability to make power. Natural gas is cheap and for now abundant, and its turbines can follow electric demand. It will probably have a price edge for 20 years until supply tightens. The American Petroleum Institute won't give a calculation of future supply, saying that the supply depends on future technology and government regulation.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, and is favored over coal for that reason. But it still pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, though just about half of the assault on the atmosphere of coal.

The fate of nuclear depends on whether the supporters of Big Green can convince politicians that it has enough social value to mitigate its temporary price disadvantage against gas.

China and India are very mindful of the environmental superiority of nuclear. China has 22 power plants operating, 26 under construction, and more  where construction is about  to start. If there is validity to the recent agreement between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama, it is because China is worried about its own choking pollution and a fear of climate change on its long coastline, as well as its ever-increasing need for electricity.

Five nuclear-power plants, if you count Vermont Yankee, will have closed this year, and five more are under construction in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. After that the new plant pipeline is empty, but the number of plants in danger is growing. Even the mighty Exelon, the largest nuclear operator, is talking about closing three plants, and pessimists say as many as 15 plants could go in the next few years.

I'd note that the decisions now being made on nuclear closures are being made on economic grounds, not  on any of the controversies that have attended nuclear over the years.

Current and temporary market conditions are dictating environmental and energy policy. Money is more important than climate, for now.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.

Lisa Petrie: The great delusion of natural gas


courtesy of ecoRI  News

Can anyone tell me why it’s called “natural” gas? Sure, it comes from the remains of long-dead plants and animals, just like coal and oil — so yes, in a sense, it’s natural — as long as it stays deep underground. But there’s nothing natural about drilling down thousands of feet, then drilling horizontally in all directions for thousands more, and all the while pumping in millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals.

Why don’t we say “natural” coal or “natural” oil? Maybe it’s because, when they came on the scene, they didn’t have to masquerade as something good for the environment.

The natural-gas industry, seeing the writing on the wall about the future of fossil fuels, has tried to market its product as the exception — the not-so-dirty fossil fuel that can serve as a “bridge” to a clean-energy future. It’s a comforting notion, but is it true?

Spectra Energy is proposing to expand its Algonquin pipeline, which carries fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. The project calls for the buildout of a compressor station in Burrillville,  R.I,, which would result in increased air pollution and noise for local residents, as well as a greater risk of explosions all along the pipeline because of the increased pressure and volume of gas being transported.

But, serious as these risks are, they are not my main concern.

The price tag for this project would be nearly $1 billion, and we the consumers, would  ultimately foot the bill. Before we spend more of our hard-earned money on this bridge, let’s take a closer look.

The International Energy Agency — hardly a radical environmental group — warned in 2011 that “anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this ‘lock-in’ effect will be the single most important factor increasing the danger of runaway climate change.” Looks like this bridge is too long.

What’s more, do we really believe we can grow a for-profit industry like natural gas, use it to supplement renewable energy while we bring the latter up to scale, and then just say “sayonara” when we’re done with it? Is that how it’s worked, for instance, with the oil industry? Oil and coal are “bridge fuels,” too — bridges from our pre-industrial past to our post-carbon future — but somehow we seem to have stayed on them for too long. Why is that? Could it be because those industries have been spending millions to block the exits?

Finally, we need to ask, where is this bridge taking us? The industry boasts that gas burns twice as clean as coal. But, when you take into account the methane that leaks into the atmosphere during the extraction, processing and transport phases, suddenly gas doesn’t look so much better for the climate than coal. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, and far worse — 86 times more potent — over 20 years.

Most comparisons have focused on the longer time frame, tilting the balance in favor of natural gas, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the world’s leading authority on climate change — recently declared that “there is no scientific basis” for using the 100-year timeframe rather than 20 years.

In fact, Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, says that natural gas is a “climate bomb with greater potential impact than the Alberta tar sands.” Greenhouse-gas expert Robert Howarth warns that if we fail to control methane emissions, we’ll cross the threshold for runaway global warming in 15-35 years, even with drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

OK, you might say, but what are the alternatives? Aren’t we still many decades away from being able to meet all of our energy needs with renewables? That may be true, as long as we keep doubling down on fossil fuels. In fact, the ready supply of cheap natural gas will likely slow the growth of renewable energy.

But, once we decide to roll up our sleeves and start building for the future instead of clinging to the past, it won’t take long. According to researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis, the world can meet all of its energy needs with renewables by 2030 — just 16 years from now — if we put our minds to it.

Renewable energy has come down in price dramatically and will likely be cheaper than fossil fuels, even without subsidies, in about six years. The renewable-energy revolution is already underway; the biggest obstacle isn’t energy storage, long-distance transmission, or even land use — it’s the fossil-fuel industry. Perhaps we don’t really want or need that bridge after all.

Why am I writing this, you may be wondering? What’s my stake in this issue? That’s a fair question. I am a stay-at-home-mom-turned-volunteer-climate-activist. I have two sons and 7 billion brothers and sisters, we only have one planet — that’s why this matters to me. Runaway global warming is not the legacy I want to leave my sons.

But perhaps you struggle to heat your home in the winter and you’re hoping  that this pipeline  would bring lower gas prices, or maybe you are concerned about the economy and jobs. If so, then you deserve to know that the main purpose of this pipeline isn’t to bring more natural gas to New England; the main purpose is to ship it overseas.

The Algonquin pipeline connects to the Maritimes & Northeast pipeline, which has applied to expand and also reverse its flow from north to south, carrying gas from the Marcellus Shale — via the Algonquin pipeline — up to Goldboro, Nova Scotia, where a new export terminal is to be built. Sure, there might still be enough gas to meet winter demand in New England, but instead of paying less for natural gas, as promised, we’ll be paying more, because we’ll be competing with international markets, where natural-gas prices can be more than twice as high as in the United States.

And, with increased gas exports, the market will be globalized like the oil market, making arguments about U.S. energy security or energy independence irrelevant. The only path to true energy independence and energy security is to cut demand and transition to locally controlled renewable energy.

This project is unnecessary, it would lock us into dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come, and would fail to deliver the promised benefits of lower gas prices, energy independence or energy security.  It would, however, increase the profits of Spectra Energy and the natural-gas industry.

The fossil-fuel industry has hoodwinked Americans too many times already with promises of cheap, abundant and safe energy; let’s not be taken in again. This project is under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). You can register your opposition by signing the petitions for Rhode Island and for the region.

Lisa Petrie , of Richmond, R.I., is the chairwoman of the Green Task Force at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County and a member of Fossil Free Rhode Island.

Build that gas pipeline; noisy times

Because of pollution, global warming and global geopolitics, we obviously need to move away from fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, but also natural gas. Still, our economy will primarily run on fossil fuels for a few more decades as we move too slowly away from them. The least dirty one — and quite cheap now — is gas.  

New England, if it’s to remain economically competitive with the rest of the country, must have access to more gas, of which there’s lots nearby, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The best way to obtain it is to build a 180-mile-long pipeline from central New York to a transmission hub in Dracut, north of Boston, as proposed by Kinder Morgan, the big pipeline company. However, it’s tougher than ever to get big things done in America. Well-heeled interest groups can hold up projects indefinitely, whatever the public interest. This is happening in the northern part of western and central Massachusetts, where some big landowners are trying to keep out the project. Many people understandably don’t want a pipeline across their acres, even with generous payments from the likes of Kinder. But New England has been on the edge of disaster several times in recent years when bad weather, and that gas is used for heating, cooking and electricity-generation, forcea utilities to turn to highly polluting oil when the gas-pipeline system — built originally only for heating and cooking — can’t meet demand, notably in cold waves.


We’ve barely missed region-wide blackouts. Meanwhile, New England’s pipeline-capacity deficit makes our energy bills higher and ability to expand business lower, and undermines economic-development planning. The engineering consultants Black & Veatch, in a study for the New England States Committee on Electricity, warns that severe gas shortages threaten the reliability of our electricity grid over the next few years. Many foes of pipelines (or at least of pipelines that go through their property, who tend to be affluent and thus can own a lot of land and can afford to hire lawyers to fight public projects) say that if we must have new pipelines, then let’s run them only along big roads and existing pipeline routes.


But that would be too limiting to meet a market demand that some experts project might increase 50 percent in the next few years. And it would require digging up more land in densely populated areas, much of it inhabited by low-income people. But then, the affluent, the biggest energy consumers on a per-capita basis, have always been more than happy to have the energy infrastructure that supports their lifestyles put in places where low-income people without easy access to lawyers and politicians live. Consider comedian Bill Cosby and his wife, who own hundreds of acres of tax-favored protected land that the pipeline might cross and are vehemently fighting it.



It  all recalls the old line about taxes, attribute to Russell Long: "Don't tax you, don't tax me; tax the man behind the tree''.

  Pipeline foes, as have wind-turbine opponents, cite the alleged environmental dangers of such projects. In the case of Kinder proposal, Mr. Cosby complains that “flora and fauna” would be imperiled. But they’re far more threatened by the air and water pollution and climate change caused by digging up and burning oil and coal than by the relatively clean gas extracted by fracking and put into pipelines.

  Then there’s the demand for the absurd promise that the pipeline would never leak or explode. But nothing is 100 percent safe. We’d have no modern civilization without risk, in the case of gas pipelines very low. And foes don’t mention the much greater dangers of tanker trucks and railroad cars carrying gas.

  Regulators and political leaders should push to take by eminent domain whatever land is needed for the Kinder project so that the region’s economy and, yes, environment can benefit from long-overdue gas-pipeline expansion. *** My wife and I went to a wedding at a Brooklyn restaurant almost under the famous bridge last Saturday. It has one of the world’s great urban views.

  We were New Yorkers back in the ’70s, and our visits evoke all sorts of memories.

  The music at such weddings used to be mostly from “The Great American Songbook.” Now it might start out with a bit of Gershwin, et al. (which seems just perfect as you gaze at soaring Lower Manhattan), but fairly quickly move to ear-splitting, conversation-stopping hip hop, expeditiously eliminating the romance in a much richer and cleaner but in a some ways less interesting Gotham than four decades ago. (Prepare to mostly text at such functions.)


But then, some drugstores and gyms are almost as loud. It's the Culture of Cacophony. Even some post offices have bad rock blaring.

Meanwhile, the Metro-North Railroad has closed its last bar car. While “functioning alcoholics” were part of the clientele, most patrons exercised a disciplined conviviality. Worse, a study in the British Medical Journal says that even moderate drinking is bad for you, contrary to earlier researchers’ assertions. Thus we head deeper into a healthier (?), if less fun, era.


-- Robert Whitcomb