There’s not a whole lot to do in the tiny Central Massachusetts town of Douglas. There are state forests, a couple of pizza shops, and the water slides of the Breezy Picnic Grounds — it’s more Norman Rockwell than Downtown Crossing.
It also happens to be among the state’s 91 cities and towns with no natural gas service, a distinction that has led climate advocates to believe such communities are sure bets for converting quickly and easily from dirty fuels like oil and propane directly to climate-friendly electricity.
So they were dismayed recently to learn that Douglas officials and one of the state’s biggest gas utilities worked in the shadows for several years to bring gas service to the town and deliberately concealed the plans from climate advocates and others who might intervene.
“It sounds like this was an attempt to keep this out of the public eye, to keep the public less informed,” said Kyle Murray, director of the Massachusetts program at the clean energy advocacy nonprofit Acadia Center. “It’s incredibly depressing.”
But the story is more complicated than that, and one that exposes a hole in the state’s plan to dramatically curb gas development in the state. Douglas has just under 9,000 people and a thin tax base. And like many of the small towns without gas, it is living on the edge economically. Needing to pay for new police and school positions several years ago, Douglas town leaders say they faced a hard choice: bring in natural gas to attract businesses or risk falling behind on basic services.
The construction of new gas lines in Douglas has now sparked fears that other communities that currently do not have gas could feel the same vulnerabilities and throw a wrench into the state’s effort to transition off of fossil fuels — even as other, often wealthier, communities are outlawing or strongly discouraging new gas hookups. While the 91 towns together would likely represent just a modest increase in the gas used in the state — and Douglas represents just a small increase — any step toward increasing the footprint of gas is a step in the wrong direction, advocates say.
“If more and more towns turn to this strategy, it will certainly hinder the state’s climate goals,” said Itai Vardi, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, a fossil fuel and utility watchdog group.
Douglas’s dilemma began to unfold in 2018 when the town was out of cash and on the brink of shutting down its library and potentially the senior center. Town leaders implemented a temporary fix — a tax override, which passed by just 12 votes — but the message was clear: A tax base relying almost entirely on residential property tax wasn’t cutting it. Douglas needed to attract some business.
As Douglas began putting out feelers for new businesses, COVID-19 struck, sparking an online-ordering frenzy and a new demand for warehouse space. Douglas, with its prime location along a trucking route and close to both the Rhode Island and Connecticut borders, became an attractive option for developers.
The town began talks with one about building a 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse on a former gravel pit — a prospect that could bring some 500 jobs and about $1 million in annual tax revenue.
The developer said it needed gas to heat the massive building, which Douglas did not have. So the town set out to get some.
The effort, born of desperation, flew in the face of the town’s efforts on climate. For years Douglas had been taking steps to green its footprint; it now offsets 20 percent of its municipal electric bill through shares in a solar farm in town, heats the library and police station with heat pumps, and has installed electric vehicle chargers for residents to use. But, according to Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik, the town so badly needed tax revenue that leaders were inclined to comply with the developer’s demands.
Soon after, they began talking to Eversource about extending a pipeline from nearby Sutton to supply the warehouse and, while they were at it, a handful of new and existing businesses.
“I understand the environmental movement’s concern about putting more pipe in the ground. That’s very rational,” Wojcik said. “The trouble is, I can’t get from here to there without some kind of source of fiscal strength.”
Apparently fearing that climate advocates or others would shut down the effort to bring gas to Douglas, Eversource and town leaders then devised a plan to keep the long permitting process out of public view as long as possible, according to emails obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act by the Energy and Policy Institute and shared with the Globe. That meant delaying the application for a new gas franchise to the state Department of Public Utilities.
“We will likely hold off on DPU request until 60 days after construction begins; since we do not want to alert antigas activists,” wrote David Allain, then the director of gas sales and expansion for Eversource, in an April 2021 email to town officials. In an email the following month, a town official wrote to Eversource that he had asked town selectmen to keep a resolution in support of the gas pipelines “low key so as not to bring attention to any anti-gas activist activity.”
Sarah Krame, a staff attorney at the Sierra Club who engages regularly with Eversource in its proceedings at the DPU, said the emails made it appear the utility was “operating in bad faith.” The effort to conceal the work being done in Douglas was happening at the same time that the state was working with utilities, including Eversource, to consider how to retreat from natural gas, she said. The emails make her question how seriously the utility is engaging in that process.
“The problem in Douglas is they were expanding the gas distribution system at a time when we are actively planning to retire it,” she said.
In one exchange of emails, sent last June, Eversource, town leaders, and the warehouse developers discussed making a case to state regulators that electricity — a cleaner source of power that the state prefers — would not work to bring new business to Douglas.
On June 23, 2022, Michael Manning of Eversource asked the town in an email whether it had been in touch with National Grid, which supplies electricity in Douglas, about whether electrification would work for the proposed properties, rather than gas.
A few days later, they got the answer they had sought: National Grid sent a letter stating that going all-electric would necessitate significant upgrades to a nearby substation and other electrical infrastructure. It could take as long as five years to complete.
Douglas and other small and rural towns in Central and Western Massachusetts can face particularly long waits for upgrades to their electric infrastructure because the need for upgrades in more congested areas can take precedence. It’s a problem the state is tackling, through a grid modernization effort at the DPU, but it is years away from being resolved.
“The ability of our towns to pursue energy efficient projects is limited simply by [electric] capacity,” said Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which represents 26 towns in Franklin County, Douglas not among them.
Even so, some climate advocates argue the electrification letter from National Grid was not based on a detailed
assessment of Douglas’s power needs and suggests the town and the developer never seriously considered electricity as an option. According to Elton Prifti, a director of engineering at National Grid, a full study was never requested. “There were never any discussions as far as whether the warehouse was going to be fully 100% electric,” he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, CRG, the warehouse developer, emailed a letter on June 28 to Douglas officials, also addressed to Eversource, stating that the company had considered going all-electric for its warehouse but concluded “that a building of this size can not operate strictly on 100% electric energy.” Eversource responded to the Douglas official and asked whether National Grid had supplied any information about its inability to support the full electrification without substantial upgrades. The warehouse developer responded, “We didn’t do that analysis.”
While the emails show that CRG was adamant that its warehouse could not be electrified, warehouses are increasingly being built to rely on electricity. In 2022 and so far in 2023, 72 percent of all warehouse space reviewed by the state was being proposed for partial or full electrification, according to a state spokesperson, a significant shift since 2021.
Eversource’s petition to expand into Douglas was filed with the state on Aug. 19, and for the first time, the plan landed on the radar of climate advocates and activists, who quickly scrambled to organize opposition.
They sent a letter to the DPU calling the plans for a new gas line “a step back” and urging the department to reject it. But the DPU approved expanding gas to Douglas later that year.
Clean energy advocates say the situation lays bare a weakness in the state’s planning process, which allows for a project-by-project approach to approving new fossil fuel infrastructure despite strong legislation on the books that calls for moving away from gas.
“If utilities are able to take this kind of piecemeal, patchwork approach to managing gas infrastructure, then it’s like we’re just out here playing Whac-A-Mole instead of having good statewide or comprehensive planning,” said Priya Gandbhir, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
Maria Hardiman, a spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the state agrees. “The Healey-Driscoll administration believes that the state should engage in strategic, statewide planning decisions around gas distribution and building electrification, rather than project by project decision-making,” she said.
Bill Akley, president of gas business for Eversource, said that while he couldn’t speak for Allain, who has now retired, the company does not have a policy of trying to keep its actions concealed from advocates. He noted that much of what it does is adjudicated in public at the DPU. He also noted that Eversource’s bid to expand into Douglas had come at the request of the town.
“It was not the company’s choice to go there, nor were we trying to do anything underhanded,” said Akley.
Meanwhile in Douglas, Town Administrator Wojcik said that he understands where advocates are coming from, but that the need to bring in more revenue left the town “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
“If that warehouse is built in Douglas, or in Sutton or Milford or Worcester or Burlington, Vermont, what’s the difference?” said Robert Minarik, Douglas’s economic development project facilitator, noting that all of those other cities already have gas, and the climate impact would be the same. “We were at a major disadvantage by not having gas, compared to our neighbors.”