Editorial: All information needed to make right call on pipeline

Last modified: Tuesday, September 01, 2015

As the debate rages over the proposed Tennessee Gas Co. pipeline project, the public keeps coming back to a central question: Does the region require more pipeline capacity to fill its need for fuel? Or might the region be able to heat its homes and businesses with power from other, less intrusive sources?

The natural gas industry has long complained that Massachusetts’ (and New England’s) pipeline network lacked the capacity to adequately supply the region’s residential and commercial demands. Yet those suppliers have continued to push for new customers, touting natural gas as a clean and economical energy source.

That push intensified with the addition of new gas fields and ways of extracting natural gas, including the controversial technique known as fracking. And with last winter’s spike in electric rates, the industry and supporters continued to press to expand capacity with a pipeline that would cut through northern Massachusetts.

If extracted in an environmentally sound way (a big “if”), natural gas can be a cleaner and safer power source than nuclear- or coal-fired plants. But the question of whether Massachusetts actually needs more capacity remains far from clear.

Given the health, safety and environmental concerns raised by people living in communities along the pipeline route, including towns in Berkshire and Franklin counties, that question must be answered before any pipeline project wins government approval.

To our thinking, getting solid information about capacity mirrors the direction the state has taken in recent years to assess its energy needs and ways to fulfill them, taking into account questions of affordability and long-term impact of energy sources on the landscape, water, air and climate.

The Energy Policy Review Commission’s report to the Legislature, released just two years ago, said in conclusion, “In order to have a vibrant economy and sustainable environment, the Commission believes Massachusetts should continue to further strive to meet the following tenets: accessible and transparent data, harmonize and prioritize overlapping or conflicting state energy goals, seek ways to achieve goals in a cost-effective manner including through effective policy and open and competitive markets, continue to actively engage the public and interested stakeholders, and maintain and encourage a variety of programs to target all potential participants.”

With regards to capacity, “accessible and transparent data” translates into information supplied from a number of sources and the demand for — and capacity to deliver — various types of fuel.

Sources of that information include the study that Attorney General Maura Healey plans to deliver in October, as well as the analysis paid for by GDF Suez North America, a liquid natural gas supplier and competitor in the Massachusetts energy market.

The desire for such data also dovetails with comments from former state Department of Public Utilities Chairwoman Ann Berwick and state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, who suggest that there are other options for meeting the region’s energy needs. Those options include wind, solar, hydro, liquefied gas, and perhaps, burning trash and wood in biomass plants

Each of those options present its own set of pros and cons, ones Massachusetts residents and federal regulators should be discussing at the same time as natural gas plans command the most attention now.

And let’s not forget that one way to reduce the need for more fuel is for all of us to use less.


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