scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Our Russian ‘pipeline,’ and its ugly toll

The Yamal LNG plant is about 1,550 miles from Moscow. In December, it exported its first liquefied natural gas shipment, which ended up in Boston.Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty

To build the new $27 billion gas export plant on the Arctic Ocean that now keeps the lights on in Massachusetts, Russian firms bored wells into fragile permafrost; blasted a new international airport into a pristine landscape of reindeer, polar bears, and walrus; dredged the spawning grounds of the endangered Siberian sturgeon in the Gulf of Ob to accommodate large ships; and commissioned a fleet of 1,000-foot icebreaking tankers likely to kill seals and disrupt whale habitat as they shuttle cargoes of super-cooled gas bound for Asia, Europe, and Everett.

On the plus side, though, they didn’t offend Pittsfield or Winthrop, Danvers or Groton, with even an inch of pipeline.


This winter’s unprecedented imports of Russian liquefied natural gas have already come under fire from Greater Boston’s Ukrainian-American community, because the majority shareholder of the firm that extracted the fuel has been sanctioned by the US government for its links to the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Last week, in response to the outcry, a group of Massachusetts lawmakers, led by Senator Ed Markey, blasted the shipments and called on the federal government to stop them.

But apart from its geopolitical impact, Massachusetts’ reliance on imported gas from one of the world’s most threatened places is also a severe indictment of the state’s inward-looking environmental and climate policies. Public officials, including Attorney General Maura Healey and leading state senators, have leaned heavily on righteous-sounding stands against local fossil fuel projects, with scant consideration of the global impacts of their actions and a tacit expectation that some other country will build the infrastructure that we’re too good for.

As a result, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the United States, the Commonwealth now expects people in places like Russia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Yemen to shoulder the environmental burdens of providing natural gas that state policy makers have showily rejected here. The old environmentalist slogan — think globally and act locally — has been turned inside out in Massachusetts.


But more than just traditional NIMBYism is at work in the state’s resistance to natural gas infrastructure. There’s also the $1 million the parent company of the Everett terminal spent lobbying Beacon Hill from 2013 to 2017, amid a push to keep out the domestic competition that’s ended LNG imports in most of the rest of the United States.

And there’s a trendy, but scientifically unfounded, national fixation on pipelines that state policy makers have chosen to accommodate. Climate advocates, understandably frustrated by slow progress at the federal level, have put short-term tactical victories against fossil fuel infrastructure ahead of strategic progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and so has Beacon Hill. They’ve obsessed over stopping domestic pipelines, no matter where those pipes go, what they carry, what fuels they displace, and how the ripple effects of those decisions may raise overall global greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental movement needs a reset, and so does Massachusetts policy. The real-world result of pipeline absolutism in Massachusetts this winter has been to steer energy customers to dirtier fuels like coal and oil, increasing greenhouse gas emissions. And the state is now in the indefensible position of blocking infrastructure here, while its public policies create demand for overseas fossil fuel infrastructure like the Yamal LNG plant — a project likely to inflict far greater near and long-term harm to the planet.


The settlement of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic circle.Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images

“All is gloom and eternal silence,” wrote a 19th century English traveler in an awestruck account of the Kara Sea, then still a largely uncharted domain of ice floes and fog. Though more powerful vessels and melting ice have enabled more human activity in the Arctic, the area around Yamal, an indigenous name meaning “edge of the world,” remains a refuge. An estimated 2,700 to 3,500 polar bears live in the Kara Sea region, along with the ring seals that form a crucial part of their diet.

Opening a gas export facility in such a harsh environment required overcoming both political obstacles — the US sanctions delayed financing — and staggering triumphs of industrial engineering by a workforce that reportedly reached 15,000 people. Dredgers scooped away 1.4 billion cubic feet of seabed to make room for the ships and built a giant LNG facility on supports driven into the permafrost, all in temperatures that can plunge to less than minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The oil and gas industry poses serious threats, especially in an area like the Arctic that recovers slowly from damage, and in 2016 the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund issued a report warning of Yamal LNG’s potential dangers. White toothed whales, a near-threatened species, breed in the vicinity of the facility, and the noise from shipping and the presence of more giant vessels “may force toothed whales to leave this habitat, which is crucial for their living, feeding, and reproduction.”

The giant “Yamalmax” icebreaking tankers, longer than three football fields and designed to mow through ice up to six feet deep, are also “extremely bad news for any ice-associated mammals that should be in the vicinity of their path,” said Sue Wilson, who leads an international research group based at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. The group has recently published a paper in the journal Biological Conservation on the impact of icebreakers on seal mothers and pups in the Caspian Sea and is currently studying shipping impacts in the Arctic.


“The captain is unlikely to notice — or even be able to see — seals in the vessel’s path ahead,” she said. “Even if the captain does notice, the fact that the ship is designed to proceed at a steady pace means that it is unlikely to attempt to stop for seals or maneuver around them, even if the ship can be slowed or stopped in time.”

Advocates also worry that increased Arctic production and shipping will hurt indigenous people; sever reindeer migration routes ; import invasive species to an environment ill-equipped to deal with them; and introduce the very remote, but potentially cataclysmic, danger of an LNG explosion.

Finally, the gas pumped there will contribute to global climate change. In some parts of the world, especially China, LNG may provide climate benefits by displacing dirtier coal. If LNG displaces gas carried by pipeline, however, the math works out differently: Liquefied natural gas generally creates more emissions, since the process of cooling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit and then shipping and regasifying it requires more energy than pumping natural gas through all but the longest and leakiest pipelines.

“The bottom line is that because of the nature of the liquefaction process, LNG is fairly carbon intensive,” said Gavin Law, the head of gas, LNG, and carbon consulting for the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. The exact difference depends on factors like how much pipelines leak, carbon impurities in the gas, age of equipment, and distance shipped, but generally LNG produces 5 to 10 percent more emissions over its whole life cycle from start to finish, he said.


From a planetary perspective, it doesn’t matter where those emissions occur: Whether from the plant in Yamal, or the power plant in Everett, they have the same impact. The science should make the state’s decisions straightforward.

“Natural gas has shown itself to be an important bridge to a clean energy future,” said Ernest J. Moniz, the former secretary of energy in the Obama administration. “For New England, expanding the pipeline capacity from the Marcellus” — the area of shale gas production in Pennsylvania — “makes the most sense.”

“Life cycle emissions for LNG imports to Boston certainly are higher than they would be for more Marcellus gas,” he said.

But the upstream emissions typically don’t show up on the books of states like Massachusetts, which judge the success of their climate efforts based only on how much greenhouse gas they emit within their own borders.

That’s an accounting fiction. But it’s a convenient one for lawmakers who’ve bowed to pressure to legislate based on what’s visible inside the Commonwealth’s own borders.

From Mashpee to Springfield, Taunton to Sudbury, the message was clear: To fight climate change, the state shouldn’t allow more fossil fuel pipelines or other infrastructure in Massachusetts.

That’s what state senators Marc Pacheco and Jamie Eldridge, the heads of the state Senate’s Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, heard when they conducted a listening tour of the state — whose results they released on the same day the Russian gas was unloading in Everett — to help prepare a new energy bill.

The resulting legislation was introduced this Monday. It contained many fine ideas, including boosting the state’s renewable energy requirements. But it also would raise obstacles to pipelines that would lock in the state’s reliance on foreign gas, with its higher carbon footprint.

In an interview, Pacheco said “Obviously any fossil fuel investments are problematic,” no matter where they occur, but that “we have no control over what happens in Russia or anywhere else in the world.” Eldridge said, “I think this bill takes a big step to preventing pipelines,” and also expressed concern about the LNG the state imports instead. “I think activists need to think about where a large amount of this gas is coming from, and that could be something the Legislature could take a look at” in the future, he said.

Theirs isn’t the first analysis to miss the larger picture.

In 2015, the Conservation Law Foundation, a prominent environmental advocacy group in Boston, released a report dismissing the need for new pipeline capacity in New England, and called on the region to rely on a “winter-only LNG ‘pipeline,’ ” including imported gas, to meet its winter energy needs instead.

After the first shipload of Russian gas arrived, David Ismay, a lawyer with the group, stood by the recommendation and shrugged off the purchase of Russian gas from the Arctic as simply the nature of buying on the worldwide market. “I think it’s important to understand that LNG is a globally traded commodity,” he said in an interview with the Globe.

The foundation, he said, hadn’t compared the overall greenhouse gas emissions from LNG to pipeline gas from the Marcellus to determine which was worse for the climate, nor had it factored the impact on the Arctic of gas production into its policy recommendations.

But a state policy that doesn’t ask any questions about its fuel until the day the tanker floats into the Harbor abdicates the state’s responsibility to own up to all consequences of its energy use — and mitigate the ones that it can.

A worker inspected a pipe in the port of Sabetta on the Kara Sea.Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images

When an icebreaker bears down on a mother seal during the springtime breeding season, the terrified animal tries to scurry away with her pup. The two may leave a trail of urine and feces on the ice, telltale signs of their distress. Even if the animals survive the collision, the disruption may separate the mother and pup, leading to the pup’s death.

Conscientious companies can minimize the cruel realities of global shipping — or conscientious governments can force them to. American law, for instance, requires ships to maintain a safe distance from seals and walruses in ice habitats. Wilson, the seal researcher, also suggested that icebreakers can change routes to avoid known seal habitats, especially during the breeding season, and carry trained observers onboard to advise vessel captains and record any adverse impact, particularly on mothers and young.

The Globe attempted to contact Sovcomflot, the Russian state-owned shipper in St. Petersburg that handled the first leg of the first shipment from Siberia to Everett, about what policies, if any, it employs to avoid killing seals and other wildlife, and whether it would halt LNG shipments during the spring as mother seals nurse their pups in the Arctic.

As of Monday night, it had not responded to e-mails.

The policy of Massachusetts, apparently, is to hope that the Russians are on top of it — and that the world beyond the state’s borders manages the impacts of fossil fuel production and transportation that the Commonwealth buys and uses, but considers itself too pure to handle itself.

As of Monday night, the next shipment of Russian gas was anchored about 70 miles off Gloucester.