The saying goes “there’s no place like home for the holidays.” Unless, that is, the heating is set to frigid because the energy bill is too high, and the tree lights are flickering because of rolling blackouts. As far-fetched as this may sound, it is increasingly a real risk for New Englanders. On average, people in the New England states face some of the highest energy rates in the country, paying 29 percent more for natural gas and 44 percent more for electricity than the national average. But the problem is not a lack of natural gas supply; it’s a lack of infrastructure that reduces people’s access to affordable and clean energy supplies from nearby sources.
The region has steadily moved toward natural gas as its dominant fuel source over nearly two decades, and rightly so — natural gas is more efficient, reliable and cleaner than many alternatives. It should also be cheaper: New England sits close to one of the largest natural gas supplies in the world, the Marcellus Shale, which spans upstate New York, through Pennsylvania and West Virginia and into Ohio.
Despite this huge resource on the region’s doorstep, there simply are not enough pipelines to bring supplies here, leaving power suppliers to manage annual shortages, especially in the winter months when demand for gas is at its peak.
This is not a new problem. Energy prices have surged year after year, and it’s about more than just price. Last year, power plants were forced to use fuel oil, relying on an energy source that is far less efficient than natural gas. When that was not sufficient, they had to import liquefied natural gas from Russia. Let that sink in: a lack of pipelines means Ohio and Pennsylvania are effectively farther from New England than Siberia.
Worse still, research suggests the region is moving closer to an energy abyss. Not only has the independent electric grid operator, ISO New England, predicted that rolling blackouts will be more common by 2024, but the cost to the region’s consumers and its economy will likely continue to increase as well.
A report commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates the lack of pipeline infrastructure will cost about 78,000 jobs and $7.6 billion by 2020.
Thankfully, there is still time for political leaders to head off this dire scenario. Over the past decade, 50,000 miles of pipelines have been built in the United States, although New England has been left largely untouched. That’s because decision makers have made the avoidable mistake of bowing to pressure from activists who want to block new natural gas projects.
Since 2016, two major pieces of infrastructure that would have directly benefitted Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire have been cancelled due to unnecessary lawsuits and political pressure. And while projects like the Granite Bridge pipeline will help more New Hampshire residents get the natural gas they need, they won’t solve the perennial shortages across the rest of the region.
New England’s leaders need to create an operating environment that welcomes new infrastructure, just as other regions have done. It’s also our responsibility as an industry to ensure the community can be certain that pipeline systems are being built safely and responsibly.
The recent events in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Mass., were indeed tragic. The operator involved is working diligently with local, state and federal agencies to investigate the accidents and ensure something similar never happens again.
Banning all new natural gas infrastructure is not the solution. After all, pipelines are still the safest mode of energy transportation. New and existing pipelines are subject to extensive regulatory framework covering design, construction, testing inspection, operation and maintenance. Interstate natural gas pipelines in particular are built using high-strength steel with special anti-corrosion coating. Everything possible is done to ensure maximum safety and reliability.
Ultimately, stopping new infrastructure will not change the reality that New England is dependent on natural gas for power and heating. Without improved access to natural gas, energy bills will rise, blackouts will become an increasingly greater likelihood, and more lives will be at risk during extreme weather events.
Investing in new energy infrastructure is critical to ensuring that New England is not literally left out in the cold. Politicians and leaders here must start prioritizing the interests of their constituents to ensure the region’s energy needs can be met year-round, including during the holidays.
Don Santa is president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.