HARTFORD — Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday sent a strong signal to other New England governors that his administration is behind coordinated efforts to upgrade the region’s natural gas pipeline system and import large amounts of hydroelectricity from Quebec to help ease skyrocketing energy prices.
Baker’s move, coming at an energy summit of New England governors in Hartford, represents a shift in tone from his Democratic predecessor, Deval Patrick, who favored developing renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, to address the region’s high energy costs and occasional shortages of natural gas.
Last year, Patrick and his administration backed away from an agreement among New England governors to seek federal tariffs on the region’s natural gas and electric customers to pay for expansions of natural gas pipelines, electric transmission lines, and other improvements to the regional energy system.
Patrick said the state needed more time to study its options, but the move disappointed other New England governors, who argued the delay threatened the region’s economic competitiveness.
At a news conference following the meeting at the Connecticut Convention Center, Baker, a Republican, said he has always supported a regional approach to lowering energy costs in New England, which has some of the highest natural gas and electricity prices in the nation. Baker said he favors an “all options approach” that promotes renewable energy while emphasizing the need to expand the region’s system of natural gas pipelines and electric transmission facilities.
Several billion dollars in pipeline and transmission projects have been proposed to help the region tap abundant supplies of natural gas from Eastern states and hydroelectricity from Canada. But those proposals have run into fierce opposition from environmentalists and property owners concerned about safety, damage to natural areas, and climate change.
Baker did not embrace any of the specific projects proposed by pipeline and transmission companies, but he did signal that he favors a plan led by Spectra Energy Corp., of Houston, to expand the existing Algonquin pipeline. He would not say whether he supports a more controversial plan by a Texas company, Kinder Morgan Inc., to build a new pipeline across Western Massachusetts, through Southern New Hampshire, and into Dracut.
Baker said he has asked the state Department of Public Utilities to review all natural gas pipeline options for Massachusetts. Approval of the projects, however, is up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; states do not have jurisdiction over interstate transmission and pipelines.
Governor Paul LePage of Maine, a Republican, was critical of Massachusetts’s energy policies under Patrick, but praised Baker. “He’s more collaborative and more open-minded, rather than being held hostage by an ideology,” LePage said of Baker after a joint news conference
Though Baker has signaled that he is willing to cooperate with other states to forge a regional energy policy, it may be easier said than done. Matthew Beaton, Baker’s secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, acknowledged that not all the states agree on specific policies. For instance, New Hampshire and Vermont are not keen on incurring costs for new transmission lines through their states in order to transport Quebec’s hydroelectricity to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
The “basic agreement” between the five governors is that each state will pass the necessary rules and laws to promote energy improvements within its borders. That would set the stage for New England governors to collaborate on major interstate projects, Beaton said. The governors plan to hold another meeting on energy this fall.
The governors face other obstacles to new regional policies; chief among them is opposition by environmentalists and residents to new natural gas and transmission line projects.
Protesters disrupted a forum at the energy summit, shouting that state leaders were merely “coordinating climate catastrophe.”
“The governors are all in collusion,” said David Ludlow, a Jamaica Plain resident and a member of the No Pipeline Expansion Coalition, before he and other activists were escorted from the room by security.
But outside the convention Center, members of the Laborers’ New England Region Organizing Fund parked a truck with electronic signs blaring messages such as “Pipelines are lifelines.”
Many unions support new pipelines and transmission lines because of the trade jobs they could generate.
Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.