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Russian gas: Just say <i>nyet</i>

With the arrival of a shipful of Russian gas on Sunday, New England’s odd energy politics took another bizarre turn. As an unintended result of restrictive shipping laws on the federal level, combined with efforts by local officials to block gas pipelines, Bay State customers will now instead burn gas extracted from the delicate Arctic ecosystem by a firm linked to one of Vladimir Putin’s cronies.

After sitting for three days off Nahant, the Gaselys, a 950-foot tanker, slipped into Boston Harbor Sunday morning, carrying the liquefied equivalent of 3.3 billion cubic feet of gas. A portion of the cargo came from Russia’s Yamal LNG export facility in Siberia, and was purchased by Distrigas, owner of the Everett facility, as a result of the recent cold snap.


Gaselys was carrying Yamal’s first-
ever shipment, and its transatlantic trip was closely tracked by gas analysts. It had departed the vast $27 billion terminal last month in an inaugural ceremony presided over by Putin himself. The company has been subject to US sanctions since 2014, when one of the biggest shareholders, Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko, was identified by the Treasury Department as part of Putin’s inner circle (and, reportedly, his judo club).

But instead of going to Asia, as initially expected, the gas was unloaded in Britain and then transferred to the Gaselys. It may have been mixed with gas from other sources, but a spokeswoman for Distrigas, Carol Churchill, confirmed that the shipment also contained Russian LNG. (Only the exporter is sanctioned, not the gas itself, and the transaction did not violate sanctions.)

To gas industry analysts, the voyage of the Gaselys represents a PR coup for Putin, at a time he’s on the defensive for sowing instability in Ukraine and meddling in US elections. “It’s a political victory for Putin,” said Agnia Grigas, author of “The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas” and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “This project the US didn’t want to come about, and not only is it successful, but its first cargo is actually going to go to Boston.”

Unloaded in Everett, the gas will be distributed to both utilities and power generators. According to Churchill, the fuel aboard the Gaseleys is enough to heat 30,000 homes for a year. She would not say how much it cost.

The first reason a Russian firm got the state’s business is one of the oldest, and most entrenched, mistakes in US law: the Jones Act, an antiquated rule that effectively stops America from exporting LNG to itself, and forces companies like Distrigas to shop overseas instead.

According to a Government Accountability Office report issued in 2015, there are no LNG tankers that comply with the act, which prohibits foreign-made or flagged ships from moving goods between US ports. A US-made tanker would cost around $400 million to $675 million, the GAO estimated, compared to around $200 million to $225 million for
foreign-made tankers. Not surprisingly, US shipbuilders aren’t lining up to make the tankers that would be needed to connect domestic markets to American LNG producers.


“We believe the law has become ineffective, and it’s affecting our domestic economy,” Churchill said.

As much as it needs reform, the Jones Act isn’t under the the state’s control. Its restrictive approach to gas pipelines, though, is something state policy makers could relax.

The ship’s arrival revived a debate over whether Massachusetts needs more natural gas pipeline capacity for fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale. Even before the ship’s arrival, New England had burned large amounts of oil and coal during the cold snap, dirtier fuels that could have been avoided with more access to gas. The industry says LNG demand could be reduced, too.

“Additional pipeline capacity would reduce the region’s reliance on LNG to serve periods of high demand for the power generators and would reduce costs to customers,” said Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for Eversource, while noting that the region would still need LNG even with additional capacity.

Governor Charlie Baker, through a spokesman, said his administration supported renewables and also wanted “to expand natural gas capacity along existing right-of-ways so the Commonwealth can provide Massachusetts residents and business with reliable, cost-effective clean energy while reducing carbon emissions and avoiding reliance on wildly expensive foreign LNG shipments.”

Attorney General Maura Healey has generally taken a more skeptical stance, and issued a report in 2015 downplaying the benefits of additional capacity. She has said that ratepayers could achieve greater savings — of around $145 million, compared to only $65 million in savings from a pipeline — through energy efficiency and other measures that make use of existing infrastructure.


Opposition to pipelines arose initially out of environmental concerns, but LNG — to say nothing of the oil and coal that served as a backup earlier this winter — may not be cleaner than piped gas would be. Scientists seek to measure “life-cycle” emissions, a way of accounting for climate impact that encompasses not just consumption but also upstream emissions. Gas, for instance, burns cleaner than coal or oil, but if too much methane leaks during transit, those “fugitive emissions” can offset its benefit.

All other things being equal, said Leslie Abrahams, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, LNG creates more greenhouse gas emissions, because of the extra steps involved in chilling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, shipping it, and then regassifying it. Abrahams said that estimating the lifecycle emissions of Russian LNG would be difficult, though, because of the lack of data from Russia. While US leakage rates are studied intensively, Russia’s have to be guessed.

What is known is that another shipment of Russian gas is loading at the French port of Dunkirk, again bound for Boston. Russia’s dirty fuels — and dirty oligarchs — are suddenly our problem.