Pipeline Proposal Makes Economic Sense

When asked to study how a shortage of natural-gas capacity in Massachusetts will affect future power needs, Synapse Energy Economics didn’t mince words.
Specifically, Cambridge-based Synapse reported, even if all technologically and economically feasible alternative-energy resources — including the introduction of Canadian hydroelectric power — are deployed within the next five years, the state will be short by up to 800 million cubic feet of natural gas on a typical cold winter day in 2020, and up to 900 million cubic feet short by 2030. As a result, winter electricity prices — already higher in Massachusetts than in most regions — would spike dramatically during periods of peak demand.
Then-Gov. Deval Patrick commissioned the Department of Energy Resources to conduct the study last summer after meeting with opponents of the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project, by which energy giant Kinder Morgan would extend natural-gas pipelines from the Midwest into the Northeast, cutting a route across Northern Massachusetts. That proposal has activated a loose (and often organized) cadre of conservationists, alternative-energy advocates, and potentially affected land owners and effectively kept the project at bay (see story, page 6).
Their concerns are legitimate; properties would be disturbed by a pipeline, and their owners left to grapple with right-of-way issues. And there is value in moving toward more renewable energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
But if the Synapse report is accurate, the state still needs more natural gas — a relatively clean, abundant fuel, at least compared to some others, and one that has kept energy prices low for residents and businesses in regions that use it widely. The Kinder Morgan pipeline could do the same, with the capacity, the company claims, to deliver 2.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to New England markets and beyond. That would be a relief to New Englanders, who pay, on average, 10 times more for natural gas right now than customers in the Mid-Atlantic states.
But another issue is in play, one that also pits Massachusetts against other regions of the country — this time, in a competition for companies looking to locate in a business-friendly climate.
Economic-development leaders in Western Mass. say this region has become at least more friendly in recent years, touting its affordability, quality of life, cultural amenities, and supply of brainpower from its myriad colleges and universities. As the economic downturn of the past decade moves even further into the rear-view mirror, and an undercurrent of entrepreneurship has the business community excited (see related story, page 20), there is a palpable feeling that Western Mass. is set to surge.
And much of that could be undone if businesses looking to relocate, or small firms based here that need to grow, realize they can’t access the affordable natural gas so plentiful in other areas of the country. In short, a capacity crisis that has already shut off service to new energy customers in many communities could seriously throttle overall economic growth.
That’s why the position taken by the Western Mass. Economic Development Council — which doesn’t back a specific pipeline project, but claims the state needs to approve one, the sooner the better — makes sense.
Economic vibrancy often requires some tradeoffs, and if Massachusetts wants to continue to grow and prosper, more solar and wind energy, by themselves, are not going to get the job done.

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