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Editorial: Wanted: new natural gas pipelines

Last modified: 3/24/2014 4:40:39 PM
Several remarkable things, none of them good, happened during the recent cold spell. The price of natural gas, the normally cheap bridge fuel that seemed destined to replace coal and oil until renewable fuels became affordable, increased 20-fold or more, hitting an all-time high in some markets.

The price spike caused the owners of the paper mill in Gorham to shut down much of its operation until prices fell. And, in a back to the future moment, the operators of New England’s regional energy grid shut down three quarters of the region’s plants fueled by natural gas and told Public Service of New Hampshire to fire up not just its aged coal and oil-fired power plants in Bow, Newington and Portsmouth, but also its turbine units in Bow, Grovetown and Tamworth. They are powered by expensive jet fuel and called upon only in emergencies. The result: more, not less pollution.

The governors of the six New England states knew the price spike was coming. The region, at least in winter, does not benefit from the glut of low-cost natural gas made possible by the hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and other states. The handful of pipelines serving the region are too few and too small to move as much gas as the region needs when temperatures plummet. By law, and common sense, residential users who heat and cook with natural gas get first dibs when supplies are short. That leaves little for the utility industry, manufacturers and other big users.

That has to change. If solving the natural gas shortage means socializing the cost of building new pipelines by charging all electricity users a surcharge, so be it. They will recoup what they spend now and more in lower, more stable prices for power over the long haul. The high cost of energy is strangling New Hampshire’s economy. It’s preventing the return of manufacturing, which is creating good jobs in states where costs are lower, and it’s taking a fortune out of the pockets of consumers, whose spending is needed to keep Main Streets healthy.

Last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan and her counterparts in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island asked the grid operator, ISO New England, to impose a tariff on all electricity ratepayers. It would be used, in effect, to subsidize the construction of one or more new natural gas pipelines by private companies. The governors requested a pipeline big enough to deliver a minimum of 600 million cubic feet per day. That would be a big help, but it would add less than 10 percent to current capacity, which isn’t enough. The proposal should start at 1 billion cubic feet per day and go up from there.

The governors want the new pipeline or pipelines to be in service two winters from now. That’s a goal worth pursuing, but almost certainly wishful thinking. As Gus Fromuth, an energy expert and founder of Energy Logistics in Manchester told the New Hampshire Union Leader, historically one hurdle after another has been placed in the path of every major energy project proposed in the last decade. States jingoistically argue about who will pay how much and who will benefit the most. Residents say “not in my backyard.” Energy industry competitors intervene, and environmental groups that fear cheap natural gas will slow the transition to non-fossil fuels sue.

We wish the governors luck and hope they’ll do all they can to educate the public about the region’s need for affordable, reliable, clean energy. Ideally, that energy will come from renewable sources of fuel, technological advances, and conservation, something New Hampshire’s government does little to encourage. Until then, however, the problem won’t be solved by rubbing an Aladdin’s lamp and wishing for clean energy while saying no to wind power, hydropower and new natural gas pipelines.

Some options are better than others, but doing nothing just keeps the coal plants running.


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