Natural gas expansion offers low prices, climate risk

In this screenshot, a map of Spectra Energy's Access Northeast plan is pictured. The project is one of three plans to expand the existing Algonquin Pipeline, which delivers natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking." (Screenshot/Spectra Energy)

Expansion of the Algonquin Pipeline, supplying natural gas to the Mansfield area, will seriously hinder the nation’s effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, said Gary Bent, head of Eastern Connecticut Green Action.

“There’s this whole big propaganda campaign around natural gas,” Bent, a former atmospheric physics professor at the University of Connecticut, said. “It really is dirty energy because its a greenhouse gas by itself.”

Despite having been billed as a clean alternative to oil and coal burning power plants, natural gas is 97 percent methane, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates will trap 34 times more heat than CO2 over 100 years.

According to the House of Representatives Natural Resources Staff, 69 billion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to power the state of Maine for a year, were leaked into the atmosphere in 2011 because of low quality piping in the United States.

Spectra Energy’s $3 billion Access Northeast project is one of three plans to expand the existing Algonquin Pipeline, which delivers natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a method of mining for natural gas that involves injecting chemicals into the ground in Pennsylvania and throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.  

Spectra Energy is segmenting the expansion into smaller parts to prevent regulatory agencies from looking at the environmental impact of the pipeline as a whole, allowing them to cash in on low natural gas prices before there is a larger shift to alternative energy. Bent said.

“I have no doubt about that,” he said. “I think the oil and gas companies believe in climate change.”

Greg Ebel, CEO of Spectra Energy, said expansion is driven by consumer demand for low natural gas prices.

“New England continues to be a real hotbed of demand activity,” Ebel said to investors at the Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference on Sept. 9.“I would expect that you’ll see additional projects put forth in the New England area despite the challenge it is to actually build there.”

Construction of Access Northeast – which will serve 80 percent of the 6.5 million electric customers in New England through collaboration with Eversource, Central Main Power and other providers – is only possible because Spectra Energy is building over its “unrivaled footprint” of pre-existing pipelines, Ebel said.

“You could not replicate the geographic position of Spectra Energy today, you could not possibly get regulatory approvals or siting approvals to be able to build it, particularly in the key North East demand markets,” Ebel said.

Spectra Energy’s spokesperson, Marylee Hanley, said the Access Northeast will move forward this year.

“Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Gas Pipeline has been operating safely in the area for over 60 years, providing clean reliable natural gas to heat homes and businesses,” Hanley said. “We anticipate filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the fourth quarter of 2015.”

Mansfield Representative Gregory Haddad, who co-sponsored a bill prohibiting the storage of fracking waste in Connecticut, said residents are weighing concerns about natural gas’s warming potential against the advantages of dropping prices.

“There are folks who believe that we should be investing more in sustainable energy and have a conviction that it won’t occur as long as there is cheaper energy readily available, no matter the environmental cost of that, and there are people who think that in these hard economic times we should be protecting the pocket book of residents,” Haddad said. “Frankly, it’s the policy of the state of Connecticut to endorse natural gas expansion. I happen to have been one of the few legislators who voted against that.”

Nearly 200 Mansfield citizens signed a petition in April opposing the expansion of the Algonquin Pipeline, prompting the Town Council to pass a resolution urging legislators to do the same. Haddad said that while this is unlikely to change Connecticut’s stance toward Access Northeast, it may strengthen future environmental efforts.

“Our democracy really only works well when people are sharing their perspectives with people who are in power,” Haddad said. “Even if it’s not ultimately successful in this fight, there will always be another fight and those skills will be put to use again.”

Bent said opposition to the Algonquin Pipeline has been more vocal in areas like New York because of existing support for environmental groups that opposed fracking in the state. He said the lack of organization in Connecticut means people are generally less informed on the importance of acting to limit ongoing climate change.

“If we stopped all the emissions right now, the Earth would still warm for several decades. The longer we put off stopping, the longer the warming will be when we do stop,” Bent said. “We can’t cut all emissions, but we should cut them deeply.”

"If the University of Connecticut divested that would be big,” he said. “The main thing that these companies care about is their stock prices."

Construction of the Algonquin Incremental Market, which will connect the pipeline to natural gas supplies from the Appalachian Basin, began earlier this month while the Atlantic Bridge project is yet to undergo regulatory review.
 
Students looking to get involved in the fight to prevent climate change should push UConn to divest from fossil fuels, as has already been done at the University of California, Bent said.


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.