State-funded report recommends big increase in gas pipeline capacity
A report commissioned by the Patrick administration and released Thursday, less than an hour before Charlie Baker’s inauguration as governor, shows the need for a significant increase in natural gas capacity to help fuel local power plants on cold days.
The report, from Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge, could reignite discussions about a tariff to help pay for more pipeline capacity into New England. A group representing the region’s governors put the tariff talks on hold in August after then-Governor Deval Patrick decided to revisit the need for more natural gas pipelines.
The Patrick administration then paid Synapse $250,000 to study the issue. The release of Synapse’s findings on Thursday represented one of the administration’s final acts before Baker took over.
The report looked at various scenarios — allowing for major new power lines from Canada, for example — to come up with a range of 0.6 billion to 0.8 billion cubic feet per day of additional gas pipeline capacity for Massachusetts in 2020. That would represent a 17 to 22 percent increase to New England’s existing pipeline network, according to the Northeast Gas Association. (The range would be on top of the extra capacity coming from Spectra Energy’s Algonquin pipeline expansion, which is expected to be done by 2017.)
The next move could be up to the new governor. In his inaugural address Thursday, Baker said he’s looking forward to working with the other New England governors to solve the problem of sky-high electric rates in the region. What that means, exactly, is unclear. A spokeswoman for the administration declined to comment on the Synapse report.
A year ago, the New England States Committee on Electricity, backed by the six governors, proposed exploring new electricity tariffs to pay for new gas pipelines and power lines. The theory behind the tariffs: A hefty upfront investment could save ratepayers money down the line by increasing supplies into the region.
Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents a coalition of big industrial users in New England, said he hopes Baker will revive those talks now that the Synapse report is done.
“If Massachusetts comes back on board, they will move toward some kind of tariff,” Buxton, who works at the Preti Flaherty law firm in Maine, said of the six-state group. “How that works is still up in the air. I think the other five states are eager to do it.”
But critics said the report failed to take into consideration a number of factors that could offset the need for more pipelines. For example, Larry Chretien, executive director of the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, said the report did not fully anticipate all that could be done to make buildings more energy-efficient.
Peter Shattuck, clean energy initiative director at the nonprofit Acadia Center, said the report did not consider the recent worldwide plunge in oil prices or fully assess other energy projects that could eventually come online.
“It’s important for the governors . . . to look at all the alternatives before they make a significant gamble on gas,” he said. “I don’t think the study does that.”