Environment and Engineering Sections

Massachusetts Needs Significantly More Natural Gas

Opinion: An Opportunity to Fuel Growth


Sometimes it’s hard to accept ‘yes’ for an answer. Does Massachusetts need significantly more natural gas to reduce sky-high energy and heating costs, continue to meet its climate goals, enable the robust development of renewable energy sources, and sustain and grow its economy?

There is no question it does. Numerous independent studies have found that the state and region face a critical natural gas shortage, including one commissioned by the Patrick administration and released at the end of his term. These findings shouldn’t be surprising. New England has a limited natural gas infrastructure, and its pipelines are reaching — and in some cases have met — maximum capacity, yet it relies more than ever on natural gas not only to heat homes during long winters but to generate electricity year round.

The region’s dependence on natural gas will only increase as it continues to replace old oil, coal, and nuclear plants with state-of -the-art electricity generators fired by natural gas, a more environmentally friendly alternative. Since 2000, 22 gas plants have been built in New England, and nearly 50% of its electric generation is now fueled by natural gas, a percentage that will climb as new plants come on line.

The problem is that the region’s demand for natural gas exceeds the supply.

These constraints have created a number of serious problems, often downplayed or ignored by those who oppose adding capacity, fearing that natural gas will hurt development of renewable energy and impede other environmental objectives.

But increased natural gas capacity will help enable the adoption of wind and solar power. Renewable energy is intermittent, available only when the sun shines and wind blows. As such, there must be a reliable energy source to support renewables, which is why President Obama has called natural gas a “bridge fuel” that will power the economy with less carbon pollution as the use of renewable energy expands.

More natural gas will also alleviate other environmental concerns. New England remains the country’s most oil-reliant region. Throughout the winter, when home heating takes priority, new and highly efficient electric plants do not have reliable access to natural gas. As a result, the region must revert to oil and coal to meet its electricity needs, which causes large increases in carbon emissions.

According to ISO New England, which is responsible for operating the region’s power grid, on Feb. 15 this year, for example, coal and oil contributed to 42% of the region’s electricity. Gas produced only 17%. Massachusetts has made larger-than-projected cuts in emissions in recent years mainly by shifting to natural gas to produce electricity, but it will be difficult to lock in these benefits without a substantial increase in the gas supply.

There are also the stark economic realities that have resulted from inadequate natural gas capacity in the region, which at the peak of winter needs falls short by more than 1 billion cubic feet a day. The lack of supply has dramatically driven up the cost of natural gas for heating and electricity generation. New England pays the highest prices for electricity in the continental United States, and over the last two years spent a staggering $7 billion more for electricity than neighboring regions.

These costs are borne by businesses and consumers alike, and are a particular burden for low-income households. They threaten economic stability and growth. A recent Forbes story featured the owner of a specialty paper mill in Western Mass. whose biggest worry — more than labor, raw material costs and markets — is energy. She pays 14 cents per kilowatt-hour to run her machines, compared to a national average of 6.5 cents, and estimated she spends $1.2 million a year more for electricity than she needs to.

Study after study has found that meeting the region’s natural gas demands will lower electricity and gas costs, spur renewables and help meet climate goals.

Any proposed pipeline has to be sized to serve existing demand and provide lower-cost and reliable natural gas to western Massachusetts, allowing local distribution companies to expand supplies to local homes and businesses — spurring economic activity and growth in a region that is often overlooked.

The time for further study has past. It’s time to accept “yes” for the answer to the question of whether Western Mass. and New England needs more natural gas and act.

Richard K. Sullivan is president of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. Formerly, he served as chief of staff to Gov. Deval Patrick and secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs; (413) 787-1555.