After acquiring Columbia Gas of Massachusetts last year, Eversource reviewed the safety and reliability of its new pipelines and discovered what the utility considered a significant red flag: One community in western Springfield was uniquely vulnerable to a mishap or natural disaster, with 58,000 customers reliant on just one pipeline vital to warming their homes.
Officials at Columbia Gas had been well aware of the vulnerability and spent years seeking to build backup pipelines in the area, but local protests against the proposals and other events stymied its plans.
Now, Eversource is floating a similarly controversial project that would create one of the largest new pipelines in the state in recent years, a plan that could cost ratepayers as much as $33 million and perpetuate the use of a fossil fuel that a new state law aims to eliminate.
“If there was one failure on that line, it could be a devastating situation,” said Bill Akley, president of gas operations at Eversource, the largest energy company in New England. “There’s nowhere else in the state that has this kind of reliability risk.”
But local residents and environmental advocates vigorously oppose the project.
They say this is the wrong time to be investing so much ratepayer money in a project that would violate the intentions of Massachusetts’ new climate law, which obligates the state to cut its carbon emissions in half by the end of this decade and effectively eliminate them by 2050. The project would require an expensive new substation and create as much as seven miles of an entirely new line, something rare in recent years in Massachusetts.
Instead, they say, state officials should halt any further additions to an already vast, multibillion-dollar infrastructure of gas pipes, which supports the continued use of fossil fuels and inevitably leaks methane, one of the most potent of greenhouse gases.
“It’s so short-sighted and misguided in the broader reality that it boggles my mind,” said Verne McArthur, 78, who lives near some of the potential routes of the proposed pipeline and has opposed it as a member of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. “We’re at code red in climate change, and we must get off fossil fuels as rapidly as possible to avoid complete disaster. Eversource laying down infrastructure, which will last decades, is so obviously the wrong direction.”
He and others assert that officials at Eversource, which earns a valuable surcharge on all new pipes it installs, are more concerned about profits than their environmental impact. They note that the existing pipeline has served the community for decades without any significant failure, and that it should remain sufficient for a few more years, as the state makes the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
“I don’t believe Eversource has Springfield’s best interests at heart in this project,” McArthur said.
Other residents have raised concerns about the potential danger of pumping more fossil fuels through urban neighborhoods, citing health concerns ranging from small leaks to the potential for gas explosions, such as those that occurred three years ago in the Merrimack Valley. The proposed pipeline would be more powerful than the existing one in Springfield and able to pump greater amounts of gas.
“How could I not take this as an attack to my community?” said Jacqueline Velez, 46, a single mother who lives in Springfield and worries about how gas leaks might affect the health of her children, one of whom has asthma. “It is destructive and detrimental to the medical health of the people that are physically close to the project.”
Eversource officials insist that the proposed pipeline, which they hope to extend from a new substation in Longmeadow to an existing station in Springfield, is about reliability and safety — not new revenue. While its primary purpose would be to add redundancy to the system, the pipeline would actually deliver gas to customers once it’s operational.
“It’s a bitter pill for us to swallow to say we’re doing this to fill our pockets,” said Akley, who acknowledged that the existing pipeline remains in good condition. “This isn’t us looking to add new customers. … Our standards don’t allow for this to exist. To us, this can’t be solved soon enough. Every day, there’s a huge risk for these customers.”
Some local groups agree with this assessment.
Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass Economic Development Council in Springfield, cited how one section of the pipeline survived a close call a decade ago when a destructive tornado swept through the area.
A major breach of the pipeline could leave thousands of residents, businesses, and vital institutions without power for a lengthy period, which could be dangerous, especially in the colder months, he noted.
“Should we take the attitude that, if there’s a catastrophic failure, we should strand businesses and homeowners?” said Sullivan, who served as the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs in the Patrick administration.
State officials declined to comment on the proposed pipeline, noting that Eversource has yet to submit a plan to the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, which would have to approve it.
Last month, Governor Charlie Baker established a commission to advise the state about how best to reduce emissions from the use of gas and other fossil fuels used for heating. That follows a requirement last year from the state Department of Public Utilities that gas companies submit a comprehensive plan by next March for how they intend to reduce their emissions.
“The DPU will explore strategies and policies that protect ratepayers and guide the evolution of the gas distribution industry as the Commonwealth reduces its reliance on natural gas to enable its move into a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions energy future,” said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Eversource officials, who plan to hold virtual public meetings next month to share more details about the Springfield project, said they intend to submit a proposal to the state at a “to-be-determined date.”
State Senator Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who helped lead the effort to pass the state’s new climate law, urged regulators to view Eversource’s proposal with “suspicion” and worried that similar efforts would be made to scare the state into allowing utilities to continue building gas infrastructure.
“Every time we try to put into place a carefully managed strategy of retreat from gas, we’re going to see utilities invoke redundancy, resiliency, or modernization to preserve their customer base and continue to build,” he said, noting that existing state incentives have made new construction an important part of their revenue. “These arguments are glib and self-serving, and we need to oppose them.”
Environmental advocates urged Eversource to consider investing the millions of dollars it would take to build the new pipeline in alternatives, such as networked ground source heat pumps, which transfer heat from the ground to warm buildings and pump heat back into the ground to cool them. They note that such geothermal technology has been used for years in Europe, and that the utility has already announced plans for a pilot program of the technology.
Company officials said a new pipeline would be the cheapest, quickest, and most reliable solution.
But advocates doubted those assertions and said Eversouce has other options, such as building up their customers’ electricity capacity, so in event of an emergency, the company could distribute plug-in electric heaters. That would also enable their customers in Springfield to make a more rapid transition to electrifying their heat, one of the main goals of the state’s climate law.
“There are alternatives, if there’s the political will, rather than using a perceived vulnerability to expand our gas system,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, an attorney in the clean energy and climate change program at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “Morally, that approach doesn’t meet the moment — the challenge of the climate crisis. It’s up to the state to change the options.”
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.