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Natural Gas “Addiction”: Massachusetts Cities Fight Plants, Thwarting of Alternative Power

Activists in Brockton and Salem Massachusetts are fighting new natural gas infrastructures that will endanger both towns’ citizens while delaying – not transitioning – any move to renewable energy.

(Image: Brockton Lawn Sign via Facebook)

After several years of writing about the impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing in other states – Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin – I’ve been turning recently to what’s happening in my own – Massachusetts.

The Bay State doesn’t lie over any methane-rich prehistoric shale sprawls. It will never experience the drilling that has wreaked havoc with groundwater, air, and earth, human and animal health in Pennsylvania and other heavily fracked states. But millions of miles of natural gas pipelines carry shale gas around the country, nowhere more than in the northeast, which increasingly gets its gas from the Marcellus shale formation underlying Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York.

Structures you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being outposts of the shale-gas boom are fast becoming that. Power plants are among them. America’s old coal-fired ones are shutting down under the pressures of pollution control costs and public environmental concern; corporations are jumping to buy them and convert them to natural gas.

Brockton Power LLC was planning to build . . . 300 feet from the city’s main drag, close to Cindy’s Kitchen, senior housing and an elementary school.

Recently, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, hardly a fossil-fuel naysayer, called natural gas the “crack cocaine” of his industry. Massachusetts is a poster-child for that addiction. Natural gas supplies 67 percent of the Bay State’s electricity and heats half its homes. Over half of New England’s energy overall comes from natural gas. And because, like the rest of the country, it hasn’t developed renewable energies (the US lags far behind European countries like Germany and Denmark on this score), it is now between a rock and a hard place. This past year’s brutal winter triggered natural gas price surges. The region’s energy officials pressed for expanded and new pipelines, new gas-fired power plants and the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas.

The story that follows is about two Massachusetts battles against power plants. One plant does not yet exist. The other, which will convert an old coal-fired plant to natural gas, is scheduled to start operations in 2016. Lawsuits in the two situations could set precedents for the state – crucial, given the alarms rung by the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the direst in the history of the world’s leading climate-change science authority.

Brockton’s Bid for Environmental Justice

Brockton (pop. 94,094) lies south of Boston, a drab city full of car repair shops, dealerships and gas stations, with few green spaces to relieve the eye. It’s here that in 1997, Ed Byers founded Cindy’s Kitchen, an organic salad dressing and marinade plant. Eight years ago, he learned that a company called Brockton Power, LLC was planning to build a 350-watt, diesel oil-and-natural-gas-powered plant 300 feet from the city’s main drag, close to Cindy’s Kitchen, senior housing and an elementary school. The company promoted the venture as “clean,” one that would bring economic vitality to the city. Byers’ mother bought the pitch until he told her, “Mom, it’s a fossil fuel plant.”

Byers’ 100 employees include many immigrants and people of color, testimony to the city’s demographics – and Byers’ own heritage. His grandfather, a cobbler, immigrated to Brockton early in the last century when it was a shoe-manufacturing hub, and his mother became a garment worker there. The city’s median income is about $50,000; 41 percent of its population are people of color, not including Latinos (10 percent), and 17 percent are below the poverty level. Its hospitalization rates are among the highest in the state, and according to a 2007 study, its childhood asthma incidence was 15 percent for all children from kindergarten through the eighth grade, as compared with 11 percent for children in the state overall.

For Byers, simple justice demanded he oppose a project that would further burden the population. He began working with a small handful of elderly residents who feared the plant’s intrusion. The group managed to draw 300 people to one of the first of what Byers describes as “many, many” meetings. “It was an emotional gathering,” he recalls, one in which residents described their worries about the plant. “There was a lot of older people, some of them had oxygen bottles . . . It was them against a 350-pound gorilla coming to town.”

“. . . Burdensome polluting facilities . . . tend to be concentrated in communities where people of color, people with lower incomes, people who don’t speak English as their first languages and who may be foreign born, tend to live.”

Stop the Power, an organization Byers cofounded to fight Brockton Power, has been fighting the company’s proposal for the past seven years, muckraking not only the potential pollution such a facility would bring, but also the city’s finances. (A 2012 tax-bill error resulted in steep property-tax hikes. Byers and others have also complained that millions of unspent dollars in the city’s reserves have increased tax burdens, even as power plant enthusiasts have claimed the power plant is needed to underwrite city projects.)

In 2008, after a debate between Byers and the city’s pro-plant mayor, municipal elections in 2008 made plant-opponent Linda Balzotti the first woman ever to lead the city. Stop the Power has also gotten out the vote in biannual city council elections. (Balzotti lost narrowly to a pro-plant school committee member in November 2013, but all of the city’s 11 councilors remain opposed.) Byers has spent over $350,000 of his own money on the fight.

“I’m trying to reverse the curse on the city. I was born and brought up here, and now I have my business here,” he tells Truthout.

Despite the city’s majority opposition, the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board in 2010 gave Brockton Power permission to build. Now, if you try accessing “Brockton Power” on the internet, you’ll find “Brockton Clean Energy,” a website in which the siting board decision is heralded, as well as the company’s partnership with a Swiss company, Advanced Power, and Siemens Financial Services, a subsidiary of Siemens, a multinational based in Germany.

A Boston law firm, Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak and Cohen, working pro bono for Brockton residents, has appealed the Siting Board decision in the state’s Supreme Judicial Court on the grounds that that it failed to consider Brockton’s standing as an “environmental justice” community. A concept implicit in the state’s Constitution, under which all citizens have the “right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment,” environmental justice is further underscored by Massachusetts’ Environmental Justice Policy. Under it, Brockton ranks ninth among the state’s 11 most overburdened cities. Adding to the burdens are Brockton facilities that include foundries, a sewage sludge incinerator and 503 hazardous waste sites.

Lisa Goodheart, lead attorney for Brockton’s residents, says that “in Massachusetts as throughout the country . . . burdensome polluting facilities . . . tend to be concentrated in communities where people of color, people with lower incomes, people who don’t speak English as their first languages and who may be foreign born, tend to live.”

The case makes a first in SJC history, says Goodheart, and will set a precedent for future Massachusetts Siting Board decisions. “Certainly there have been many cases where challenges to proposed power plants have gone up to the SJC but never before on the basis of the state environmental justice policy.”

If the SJC rules against the siting board, says Ed Byers, “It’s gonna be inspiring because it’s gonna give more and more people hope that when they take on these issues, there’s a chance for the little guy. People don’t take these big issues on because they think there’s no hope.”

Salem Fights Gas Plant Siting

For about two years, hope filled another power-plant opposition movement north of Boston in Salem, 47 miles north of Brockton. Formerly infamous for its late 17th century witch trials, Salem now abounds with B&Bs, little cafes and restaurants, museums, the legendary House of Seven Gables, pretty little clapboard houses in shades of grey and yellow, and a harbor. There, tourists can walk out on a jetty to see a lighthouse, a two-mast schooner – and the looming tower of a coal plant.

“Why spend millions of dollars on a gas plant that will only be here for 35 years when we could invest in wind projects that could last well into the future?”

Built in 1951, the plant was bought in 2005 by Dominion, a Virginia-based national power company. But by that time public opposition to coal was mounting, and in Salem, residents began complaining about the coal plant’s pollution. In 2012, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a Massachusetts environmental law organization, and Healthlink, a small nonprofit public-health advocacy organization, secured an order from the US District Court in Massachusetts requiring Dominion to close the plant. Dominion sold to Footprint Power, a firm based in Bridgewater, New Jersey, that planned to convert the plant to natural gas.

Jeff Brooks, a tall, husky, soft-spoken 52-year-old with decades of experience in the power industry, thinks there should be no new power plant on the harbor at all. “My argument from day one with this plant is that it’s going to be right across the street from an elementary school and from elderly housing,” says Brooks, who lives at the harbor. He’s concerned about potential fire and explosion hazards, recalling a devastating fire 12 years ago in the old coal-fired plant, when his brother was a captain in the city’s Fire Department. “What would happen with a fire in a gas power plant?” he asks. (In Middletown, Connecticut, a gas-fired power plant exploded in 2010, killing six and injuring dozens more. A malfunction in the same plant caused a fire there in February of this year.)

He worries about the plant’s fine-particulate emissions. Invisible, these lodge deep in the lungs and are particularly hazardous for children, the elderly and people with chronic lung problems. Jonathan Levy, Boston University professor of environmental health, says that “natural gas plants are cleaner than coal plants, but it’s not necessarily the case that they have zero impacts in local populations.” Even low levels of particulate matter, says Levy, can affect public health, and “sources that contribute air pollution will contribute to those risks.”

Brooks also thinks it’s high time for renewable development. “Why spend millions of dollars on a gas plant that will only be here for 35 years when we could invest in wind projects that could last well into the future?” he asked another reporter this past March.

A year ago, Brooks joined a small group, Grassroots Against Another Salem Power Plant (GASPP), formed in 2012 when Footprint assumed ownership of the existing plant. Other organizations, including Healthlink, the Massachusetts branch of a national organization, Clean Water Action, and a Cambridge-based climate justice group, Better Future Project, have swelled GASPP’s numbers. Early this past February, the coalition brought some 400 plant protestors to march in bitter cold, through Salem’s slushy, ice-bound streets, to the old coal plant, bearing plastic models of wind turbines and placards denouncing fossil fuels.

Against the opposition, Footprint CEO Peter Furniss claims the Salem plant will be so efficient that it will diminish the region’s carbon footprint “in the near term and in the long term.” At the end of the “long term,” he says, renewables (wind and solar) might kick in. When that will happen, he can’t say. “It really has to do with our political establishment, finding the political will to fit the circumstances,” he told Truthout.

But the “long-term” prospect for renewables has been an ever-receding mirage in the United States, in contrast to Germany and Denmark, whose own long-term work on solar and wind energy created all-time highs in renewable energy generation in 2013. According to a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, shale-gas exploitation tends to crowd out renewable development. That’s because, as fracking spreads, it drives natural gas prices down, spurring greater consumer use, which in turn spurs more fracking. The cascade effect thwarts investment in any large-scale alternative energy programs.

A natural gas plant’s “CO2e” figures should include all its expected gas emissions, including methane.

Adding to such disincentives are pressures brought by regional agencies. ISO New England, which runs the region’s power grid, has warned that if the Salem plant isn’t replaced, northern Massachusetts could face electricity shortages. Moreover, the coal-fired plant was Salem’s biggest taxpayer, and Footprint has agreed to pay the same share. Thus a regional lack of “political will,” to use Furniss’ term, played in Footprint’s favor. So did the enthusiastic backing of Salem state representative John Keenan, chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. And so did the haste with which state energy officials made their decision about the proposal. In October 2013, only a year after Footprint took over the old plant, the state’s siting board approved Footprint’s project.

Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) appealed the approval in Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, charging that when Massachusetts’ officials gave their go-ahead, they failed to consider the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act. That act requires Massachusetts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels in 2020; 80 percent by 2050. On February 5, CLF issued a statement deploring that the “rushed and flawed approvals process for the Footprint Power Plant [that] threatens the progress Massachusetts has made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions [and denies] the public the thorough vetting that a major new fossil fuel power plant like this deserves.”

On February 8, the 400-strong demonstration took place. But little over a week later, CLF stunned the plant’s opponents by settling with Footprint. The settlement requires the company to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions incrementally between 2016 and 2050, when it will close the plant down. CLF called the agreement “groundbreaking.” Lead lawyer Cleveland said that it “shows how natural gas can be a tool for reducing greenhouse emissions if it is appropriately conditioned and constrained in a manner that is consistent with the need to decarbonize our energy system.”

The settlement was concluded a month before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that predicts dire threats to all species on the planet, warning of “abrupt or drastic changes” that could produce irreversible shifts like the melting of the Arctic ice cap and Greenland’s glacial ice sheet. Central in those shifts is methane.

Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University engineering professor and coauthor of a landmark 2011 Cornell study establishing that fracking’s global-warming footprint could be greater than that of coal, notes that the word “methane” doesn’t appear in the settlement. (Natural gas is mainly composed of methane, which is what gives the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry its devastating impact on the atmosphere.) Neither, says Ingraffea, is there any explanation how Footprint arrived at its annual emission figures. The settlement includes a table listing “CO2e” figures for each of the plant’s 34 years in operation. Above the table there’s a statement that these represent the company’s compliance with the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

The Missing Methane Factor

CO2e isn’t the same as CO2. A standard unit for measuring carbon footprints, CO2e (or CO2eq) is a term that expresses not only CO2 emissions, but also those of other greenhouse gases. A natural gas plant’s “CO2e” figures should include all its expected gas emissions, including methane.

“CO2e implies they’ve looked at other greenhouse gases,” says Ingraffea, “but [it] doesn’t make clear that they did, whether they did it correctly – and therefore whether the conversion of this coal plant to a natural gas plant achieves its objective of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.” Estimated “upstream operations” should be included in the figures. That means, says Ingraffea, “everything from the time the shale gas well is drilled, fracked, processed, compressed, stored. Anytime you’re increasing demand for shale gas, you’re increasing methane emissions.” (An afterword to this article explains how CO2e is determined.)

Part of the “upstream” picture is the Algonquin Pipeline, owned by Spectra Energy, which runs from Texas to Boston and now carries gas fracked from the Marcellus. Spectra proposes expansions to the Algonquin pipeline, ones that will increase production in the Marcellus and flow of the gas northeast. Footprint CEO Peter Furniss says the Salem plant won’t get its gas from the Algonquin, but through an ancillary Spectra pipeline. Yet according to Spectra’s own website, the new pipeline “will deliver cost-effective supplies of clean-burning natural gas from Spectra Energy’s existing Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline system to the Footprint Power Salem Harbor Station. . . .”

Thus the plant will be another fracking industry outpost at a time when the Earth’s current methane load is posing nightmarish dangers to all life. Any addition to these adds to a game of Russian roulette in which geophysics and geochemistry will win out over any human compromises and pleas for “just a little more” of the gas that already overburdens the planet.

(A group of Salem activists, including Jeff Brooks, plans to continue fighting the plant. In March they filed an appeal to the environmental appeals board of the federal Environment Protection Agency, seeking review of a permit given the plant by Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection. GASPP has also launched a drive for nonviolent resistance to the plant’s construction.)

Afterword: A Guardian report explains that the idea behind CO2e is “to express the impact of each different greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming. That way, a carbon footprint consisting of lots of different greenhouse gases can be expressed as a single number.” For example, the UK released 474 million tons of CO2 in 2009. But when you include its emissions of methane and other gases, the figure swells to 566 million tons of CO2e – the equivalent of 92 million extra tons of CO2. CO2e emissions are the sum of CO2 emissions and those of other greenhouse gases converted by using each gas’s global-warming potential – its GWP – to CO2 equivalence.

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