POLITICS: PennAve

New England Democrats seek more natural gas

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PennAve,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Natural Gas,Pipelines,Magazine,Ed Markey

New England's lawmakers want more natural gas flowing through their pipelines.

It's an unusual position for the region's Democratic legislators, who tend to push for more climate-friendly energy sources.

The region gets more than half its power from the fuel, which burns about twice as clean as coal. But while a natural gas boom has lowered U.S. electricity prices, New England has occasionally been left out in the cold.

"[T]he high demand for natural gas to meet heating and electricity needs, coupled with significantly constrained pipeline capacity into the region, has driven up natural gas and wholesale electricity prices and threatened reliability in New England," a bipartisan group of 12 senators wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in March.

The brutal winter exposed shortcomings in the region's electricity infrastructure. Power prices spiked as demand rose, with the winter average hitting roughly $6 per million British thermal units compared with a national price of $3.43 per million Btu. Some shocks sent spot prices skyward to $35 per million Btu.

"We just don't have enough capacity in Connecticut right now," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told the Washington Examiner. "It's always a difficult issue because there are always people who don't want a pipeline in their backyard, but I'm convinced that natural gas is going to be this bridge fuel that gets us to renewables."

It's a fine line for some of the region's more climate-friendly lawmakers to walk.

"It's complicated," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

On one hand, electric utilities switching to natural gas from coal helped reduce carbon emissions 3.4 percent in 2012 from the previous year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Improving pipeline capacity also would help reduce electricity price shocks.

But some environmental groups oppose natural gas because it's a fossil fuel, and they see reliance on it as delaying transition to renewable energy.

In that regard, the pipeline push has an unlikely champion in Sen. Ed Markey. A climate change advocate and co-author of 2009 cap-and-trade legislation opposed by the natural gas industry, the Massachusetts Democrat sees the issue as a consumer protection and climate solution.

"I do support expansion of imports of natural gas into the New England region. I think that we have to work to resolve all of the issues and I think it's possible to accomplish them," he told the Examiner. "I think that the price that people paid this winter for natural gas is all the incentive that is needed."

Jamie Henn, spokesman for climate advocacy group 350.org, called Markey's support for more natural gas infrastructure "baffling."

"He's always given lip service but hasn't been a proponent before. I honestly don't know why he or his staff are doing it," he said.

But Markey and other New England Democrats have environmental defenders too.

A pair of Markey bills focus on patching up leaky pipelines — though an aide said he hasn't ruled out expansion. They would ensure customers aren't charged for wasted natural gas, and that methane, a potent, short-lived greenhouse gas, doesn't escape into the atmosphere.

"He views them with an eye towards addressing methane leakage while also creating jobs. Its emphasis is on existing infrastructure, not expansion," Melinda Pierce, deputy director of federal policy with the Sierra Club, said in an email.

Still, pipeline issues are largely a state and local matter. Some federal fixes are available — such as smoothing scheduling procedures to better align natural gas use with power demand — while others, like legislation to shorten federal environmental review periods, are heavier lifts among Democrats.

Murphy, however, said there's little time to waste for New England.

"Hopefully we'll find religion on infrastructure soon," he said.

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