Governors can wield influence over pipelines

Natural gas infrastructure is not just federal issue

 

WITH NEW FEDERAL ENERGY POLICIES evolving to be starkly at odds with our priorities in Massachusetts, it is vital that we understand what authority our state has to influence controversial new natural gas infrastructure projects. Complicating matters, the Baker administration continues to promote an abstract vision of expanded interstate natural gas pipeline capacity in our region, yet when questioned about his support for specific gas infrastructure projects with concrete impacts, the governor’s repeated response to distraught landowners and local officials is that interstate gas pipelines are a federal matter.It’s true that gas pipelines are regulated under the federal Natural Gas Act, but that is not the whole story. There are key areas where states have decision-making power and influence with respect to the permitting, financing, and siting of interstate pipelines. In other words, the pipelines are not strictly a federal matter;  “it’s a federal matteris just a line used by the pipeline companies, and by state officials seeking to obscure their role and responsibility in the buildout of natural gas infrastructure.

In fact, New England governors have in recent years, and to varying degrees, invited in pipeline companies to build more interstate gas infrastructure.

The primary role that the states play in green-lighting these projects is by approving contracts that allow the new infrastructure to be financed by ratepayers. Gov. Charlie Baker’s appointment of utility insiders has led to the predictable result of a Department of Public Utilities (DPU) that rubber-stamps every pipeline capacity contract that comes its way. The DPU (not just under the current administration) has also taken the view that the agency can authorize pipeline companies to survey private land against landowners’ wishes, even before federal authorization (and the eminent domain power that follows) has been granted for a project.

Most notoriously, Baker’s Department of Energy Resources tried to ram through a scheme to make electric ratepayers fund interstate gas pipelines. The scheme received the blessing of the DPU, leading to untold thousands of dollars being spent in regulatory and court proceedings by the Commonwealth, nonprofit organizations and private companies, ultimately establishing at the Supreme Judicial Court that the scheme was illegal.On the environment side of the Energy & Environmental Affairs umbrella agency, there are also several areas in which the administrative agencies can change the trajectory of a pipeline proposal. For example, the Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) reviews water quality permit applications, pursuant to the authority vested in the states under the federal Clean Water Act. In New York, the state agency analogous to MassDEP has denied such a permit for a pipeline proposed to cross that state. MassDEP has, to date, approved all water quality permit applications that have come before the agency for recent pipeline projects, without requiring a thorough analysis of impacts and alternatives.

It also appears that MassDEP went out of its way to help clear the path for Spectra’s compressor station slated for Weymouth, overriding the Weymouth Conservation Commission’s denial of a wetlands permit for the Atlantic Bridge project.

We may never know the degree to which such superseding orders and permitting decisions stem from political directives higher up, rather than as result of MassDEP being de-funded and under-staffed as part of Baker’s approach to the environmental agencies. Let it not be forgotten that one of the governor’s early executive orders (based on the Associated Industries of Massachusetts’ “Blueprint for the Next Century”) sought to eliminate regulations that “exceed federal requirements” – apparently in a race to be on par with Alabama rather than California in terms of environmental stewardship.

Baker’s Energy & Environmental Affairs secretary also signed off on a deal with Kinder Morgan to run a new gas pipeline through Otis State Forest in the Berkshires, with the presumption that the Legislature would deliver a vote, required under our state constitution, to allow for the pipeline easements. They did not, and Kinder Morgan sued the Commonwealth to exercise eminent domain power under the Natural Gas Act. (The attorney general’s office was put in the unenviable position of defending the actions and positions of state agencies that answer to a governor with a radically different policy agenda from her own, resulting in a recent settlement with Kinder Morgan.)

For some time we have had to contend with a federal government that leases our federal lands for oil and gas operations; it is unsettling to see the parallels playing out in the Commonwealth. Do Baker and his appointees value our constitutionally protected public conservation lands primarily as a potential revenue stream? It’s hard to conclude otherwise when the governor continues to gut the environmental agencies.

From standing our ground with respect to public lands, to requiring strict adherence to our environmental regulations and supporting adequate staff to carry out their agencies’ missions, to pushing an agenda to decarbonize our economy, to protecting ratepayers rather than giving utilities the benefit of the doubt at every turn – a state administration can have decisive impact on proposed gas infrastructure projects. Don’t let any governor tell you otherwise.

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