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    CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

    Natural gas industry burns for more pipeline capacity in Mass.

    Lawrence, MA--9/20/2018-- Columbia Gas workers worked on pipes off of Parker Street in South Lawrence. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter:
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
    Columbia Gas workers worked on pipes off of Parker Street in South Lawrence.

    With lawmakers raking the natural gas industry over the coals, this might seem like a strange time to seek support at the State House for expanded pipeline capacity.

    But the headlines regarding Columbia Gas’ Merrimack Valley disaster and the union lockout at National Grid don’t seem to be getting in the way.

    The progas Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy continues to grow its ranks: The Neponset Valley, Cape Cod Canal, and Sandwich chambers of commerce recently joined. And pipeline operator Enbridge has hired Brian Dempsey, a former top lieutenant of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s, to lobby on its behalf. The coalition’s primary financial backers — Enbridge, Eversource, and National Grid — don’t have a specific bill lined up. But they want to pave the way for legislation that would enable electric ratepayers to be charged to expand pipeline capacity.

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    Good luck with that. The industry faces an uphill battle. Opposition to gas expansion remains intense in the Senate, and it could grow in the House as that chamber shifts to the left, politically. Environmental groups will put up a fierce fight.

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    Lawmakers are particularly frustrated with the lockout, and its toll on the 1,250 union workers and the broader economy. They’re also worried about safety after the disastrous explosions and fires along Columbia Gas pipes in September. The fallout from that incident prompted Eversource to write off its stake in the shelved Access Northeast pipeline project, kissing some $33 million goodbye.

    But the Access Northeast partners — the same trio of Eversource, National Grid, and Enbridge — haven’t given up on finding some way to expand gas capacity here. They’re funding this coalition to make the case that inadequate gas supplies are driving up electricity costs and hurting the environment. The latter assertion may come as a surprise to some, but several power plant operators fired up oil generators last winter as a backup when gas supplies became constrained.

    An Eversource spokeswoman says burning oil instead of gas in the winter can add $1 billion a year to New England’s energy supply prices, a situation that will worsen once the Pilgrim nuclear reactor closes in June. And a spokeswoman for National Grid says the state’s efforts to expand electrification in the transportation and heating sectors will put more demands on the grid. The pitch is resonating with business groups. Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber chief executive Marie Oliva, for example, says the state won’t be able to rely only on renewable energy — despite efforts under way to foster hydro, wind, and solar sources. She says natural gas, currently the dominant power-plant fuel in the region, needs to remain in the mix.

    The utilities could use the legislative help. They want to get more gas to the region’s power plants. (Heating customers get priority for the gas on those cold winter days.) The state Supreme Judicial Court in 2016 rejected the concept of allowing electric ratepayers to pick up the tab, putting the issue back in the Legislature’s hands.

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    Dempsey may know his way around the State House better than anyone on the outside. He says he hopes to overcome some of the opposition in the building as the new session begins in January by urging lawmakers to take a more pragmatic, long-term view.

    But this remains a tough sell: Gas pipelines could be among the last things that Beacon Hill leaders want to talk about expanding right now.

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