The possible shutdown of a controversial gas facility in Massachusetts could have climate impacts across New England, some Maine officials say, as the region grapples with how to integrate renewables and meet its climate goals.
But environmental groups disagree, saying the facility is not needed and should be closed after two emergency shutdowns released natural gas into nearby environmental justice communities.
At issue is a compressor station in Weymouth, Massachusetts, a densely populated suburb outside of Boston. The facility is part of the Atlantic Bridge pipeline project, which moves gas from the Marcellus shale region into New England and Canada. Algonquin Gas Transmission, a subsidiary of Enbridge, built the compressor station.
In February, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asked for public input on whether it should allow the compressor station to remain in service after the emergency shutdowns.
Many of the responses to the commission have focused on whether it can legally reverse its authorization of a gas facility and whether such a move would affect future infrastructure development. Algonquin has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the regulators’ order seeking comment.
But Maine’s public advocate is also arguing that the potential closure of the facility could have far-reaching climate impacts in the region. “The potential loss of capacity from the Weymouth compressor station threatens the region’s ability to achieve its climate policy goals through the integration of intermittent renewable generation such as wind and solar,” the Maine Office of the Public Advocate told the federal commission on April 5, arguing that the gas supplied by Weymouth will be needed to maintain reliability.
Most gas-fired generators “fly naked” and operate without a contract for pipeline capacity because they cannot afford to sign a pipeline deal and still clear the energy market, Andrew Landry, the deputy public advocate for Maine, said in an interview.
While the Atlantic Bridge project was built primarily to serve gas utilities in Maine and Canada, gas-fired generators still rely on the leftover pipeline capacity that is not being used for that purpose.
The advocate’s office cited rolling blackouts in California last year and February’s outages in Texas as a warning to ensure flexible generation is available.
Closing the Weymouth facility “would increase the existing risk faced by New England of a catastrophic system failure during a severe cold weather event, not unlike that recently experienced in Texas,” the public advocate told the federal regulators, although the outages in Texas were caused more by a failure to weatherize infrastructure rather than a lack of capacity.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission backed the public advocate’s concerns that insufficient gas supply during the winter could risk energy system failures and volatile prices, as well as delayed achievement of climate policy goals.
“The Maine PUC observes that the Atlantic Bridge project by itself does not solve Maine’s supply problems, and it was not designed to resolve the fundamental problem of the lack of firm natural gas pipeline capacity to electric generators, but removing this project from service will only make the problem worse at a time when no major pipeline construction is being planned for New England,” the utilities commission told federal regulators.
Eventually, the region will be able to rely on battery storage to respond to swings in renewable generation, Landry said in an email. “However, such resources are not being deployed quickly enough to match the increased construction of solar generation in particular,” Landry said.
ISO New England has not taken a position on the Weymouth project and does not have any comment on it, said Matt Kakley, a spokesperson for the grid operator.
Environmental and community groups disagree that gas-fired power is needed to integrate renewables in the region. Instead, New England should use energy efficiency, demand response and battery storage to meet these needs, said Deborah Donovan, senior policy advocate and Massachusetts director of the Acadia Center.
“We just need to use what we have more wisely. Investing in natural gas is just going to drag out and perpetuate the climate crisis,” Donovan said in an interview.
The Pipe Line Awareness Network said the Maine public advocate’s “gloom and doom scenario” of system failures ignores the reality that the Texas experience was largely due to natural gas system equipment failures, not renewable energy failures or fuel shortages.
Meanwhile, the Maine-based Industrial Energy Consumers Group likened the pipeline to the New England Clean Energy Connect power line, which is slated to carry 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada through Maine to Massachusetts.
“Just as Maine and Maine-based entities like IECG have supported the southward movement of electricity over NECEC through Maine to Massachusetts end-users in the spirit of regional cooperation, so should Massachusetts end-users support the northward movement of gas to Maine via the operation of the Weymouth compressor station,” the group told federal regulators.
Most of the power from New England Clean Energy Connect is set aside for Massachusetts utilities to help meet the state’s clean energy goals. Meanwhile, gas from the Weymouth compressor station is particularly important for Maine, which has previously relied on dwindling regional Canadian gas supplies and imported liquefied natural gas.
Weymouth and Clean Energy Connect are two pieces of the puzzle in meeting the region’s climate goals, Landry said. The power line would provide clean baseload renewable generation, while Weymouth’s role is to provide additional swing capacity to allow integration of more solar generation, he said.
Shuttering the Weymouth compressor station could also hurt efforts to transition New England homes and industrial facilities to use gas instead of oil, the Industrial Energy Consumers Group said. This transition could reduce carbon and other pollutants, the group said.
And as New England moves to electrify its economy, “natural gas is not only a bridge fuel, it is the only bridge available to transition rapidly and successfully,” it said.
But community groups in Massachusetts disagree. “They talk about gas as a bridge fuel, but it is a bridge to nowhere,” said Alice Arena, the president of the group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station.
The communities in Maine that rely on oil for heat are geographically remote, so it is too expensive for utilities to run gas lines to those homes, Arena said in an interview. And it is much cheaper for homeowners to install a heat pump than to convert a house to gas, she said.
In the end, there is no way to mitigate the impacts the Weymouth compressor station has on the environmental justice communities near the compressor station, Arena said.
“FERC should shut it down. That is the only solution,” she said.