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    Eversource sends cease-and-desist letter to environmental group

    Eversource

    As New England’s biggest utility, Eversource Energy is a regular target for environmental groups. But the company doesn’t usually demand its opponents take back their words.

    But on Monday the utility sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Environmental Defense Fund, demanding the group remove a report from its website that accused Eversource of driving up electricity prices with its contracting practices for natural gas.

    “The Environmental Defense Fund crossed a line with their accusations and claims,” said Bill Akley, Eversource’s president of gas operations.

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    Eversource also requested that EDF stop making or publishing “false and defamatory statements” about the report and its implications about Eversource’s approach to procuring natural gas. The letter, which notes that EDF’s statements are “irreparably harming” Eversource’s reputation, also demands the group ask any news companies that posted the report to their websites to remove it.

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    In its report issued in October, the environmental group said Eversource and another utility company, Avangrid, contributed to the high costs of electricity in the region over a three-year period that ended in mid-2016 by tying up capacity on the Algonquin pipeline system during frigid weather. The utilities would reserve additional capacity on the pipeline but then not use it.

    New England’s power grid relies on natural gas, a primary fuel for many power plants in the area, so any limits on getting that fuel into the regional supply could affect the cost of electricity. The Environmental Defense Fund said the practice by the two utilities caused electricity prices to rise by $3.6 billion over a three-year period, by locking up gas pipeline capacity on particularly cold days.

    EDF never described a precise motivation for why the companies would reserve and then cancel their pipeline capacity in its report.

    But Eversource said EDF wildly overstated the effects of the company’s procurement practices on electricity prices.

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    “They fundamentally misrepresented how the industry works in order to make that headline,” said James Daly, vice president of energy supplies at the company.

    Daly said the cold weather forced the utility to reserve backup natural gas supplies for its heating customers.

    “We have to maintain a margin for safety,” Daly said. “Their argument is we should not have that margin for safety.”

    Jon Coifman, a spokesman for the environmental group, issued a brief statement by e-mail about the cease-and-desist letter.

    “We have just received the Eversource letter of Dec. 11, and have referred it to counsel for review,” Coifman said. “We stand by the analysis and reject this obvious attempt to intimidate and chill legitimate public inquiry.”

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    Based in Connecticut, Avangrid owns several utilities in New England, including Berkshire Gas. The company has previously said it did not do anything wrong with its pipeline capacity contracting.

    The EDF report has since sparked Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and the state Department of Public Utilities to review utilities’ methods for procuring natural gas. Daly said EDF and its supporters are circulating the report among regulators and state legislators, casting an “aura of wrongdoing” on Eversource.

    A spokeswoman for Eversource said executives at the company, which has dual corporate offices in Hartford and Boston, can’t remember a time when it issued a cease-and-desist letter to demand a published report be retracted.

    The EDF report has become a flashpoint in the ongoing controversy over whether New England needs more natural gas pipeline capacity. Eversource had partnered with National Grid and pipeline developer Spectra Energy, now a part of Enbridge, on a massive expansion of the Algonquin system. That project, known as Access Northeast, is now on hold while the companies search for financing for the $3.2 billion project.

    “We think the true purpose of the report was to prevent the expansion of natural gas,” Daly said. “What they were doing is saying, ‘We found surplus capacity . . . and by implication, you don’t need to expand the pipelines.’ ”

    Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.