By Beth Treffeisen
As National Grid is in the final stages of securing the rights to snake a natural-gas main extension through the Back Bay, concerned residents, in almost a last-ditch effort, came out to stop the pipeline last week.
At a public hearing put on by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) and National Grid in the Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library on Jan. 19, residents continued to share their concerns over installing the new pipeline.
“There are a lot of questions in this neighborhood about exactly what this proposed pipeline is, and what to expect when it is installed, especially since we’ve noticed in some parts of Back Bay that National Grid is still working on some replacement pipelines,” said Martyn Roetter, chair of NABB.
“Obliviously, installing gas pipelines in winter is not something that is generally recommended. At the same time, we recognize that a lot of us have concerns about the broader issues associated with the introduction of new gas pipeline and the structure at this time given all of the concerns about climate change.”
National Grid has already secured permits needed from the Boston Improvements Commission on Dec. 7, and is in current negotiations with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU). A hearing was held with DPU on Dec. 15 with no decision since the attorney general’s office is still looking into the matter.
This pipeline is being proposed in order to support the infrastructure of several developments in the works in the Back Bay, including the under-construction One Dalton that will feature a luxury residential and hotel tower that will rise to 691 feet.
The natural gas main extension will run 4,100 feet from the intersection of Berkeley and Cortes streets to Dalton Street, ending at around the location of One Dalton.
“Why is this pipeline needed if it is not needed for existing structures?” asked Lee Humphrey, a Back Bay resident, who inquired that if it weren’t for the planned new developments coming to the area, would there be a need for a new pipeline?
National Grid representatives said that the demand for natural gas in the area is high and that it is not only for One Dalton but also for future new construction and existing structures in the area. They would not disclose which customers wanted to be added to the natural gas supply.
“Wait a minute! This is a community project,” said Humphrey. “I don’t understand why you can’t disclose who these people are. It is frustrating that you won’t disclose who you are building this pipeline for.”
The estimated cost of the main extension is $15 million. The main extension pipeline is a self-funding project, meaning that the customers within the building will be able to pay off the cost of construction through their use of natural gas.
Amy Smith, vice president of investment, resources and rate case planning for National Grid, made it clear current ratepayers will not have to front the cost of this construction project.
It is expected that the cost of construction will be paid off in 20 years, or the same time that National Grid is going to into a contract agreement with One Dalton.
“This is not a 20-year gas-supply agreement; it is a transportation of gas agreement,” said Matthew Foran, director of business development and technology. “The company can go through a third-party gas supply, and that means it could be standard or renewable gas.”
Residents from Back Bay and across the Boston area made it clear that a new, intermediate pipeline would commit them to more fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come.
Major concerns stated by residents noted that more natural gas will contribute to climate change, and that building the pipeline will make it more difficult for the city to reach its greenhouse gas reduction benchmarks by 2030 and 2050.
Natural gas is predominantly obtained by hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a process that is known to pollute groundwater, damages property value and releases methane into the atmosphere.
A National Grid representative said that right now, probably about 80 percent of the natural gas supply for the Northeast comes from western Pennsylvania, which involves hydraulic fracturing.
“I live in the South End, and my kids go to school in the Back Bay and so I walk them every morning along the pathway that this pipeline is going to take,” said Claire Corcoran, a volunteer for Mothers Out Front, a non-profit organization that fights climate change.
“The vast majority of residents in both the South End and Back Bay, are thinking about coastal flooding. We live at sea level. We just had catastrophic flooding last week downtown and we are seeing the maps that the city is producing and you know, it’s coming for us. We don’t support fossil fuel infrastructure in our community.”
Between 1990 and 2014, Massachusetts has reduced overall emissions by 23 percent and electricity emissions by 48 percent. With the exception of transportation, all other sectors have fallen significantly, driven by energy efficiency, oil-to-gas conversions, and pipeline leak repairs.
The overall U.S. emissions have increased by 5 percent between 1990 and 2015.
Donald Chahbazpour, director of Climate Change Compliance at National Grid explained that there are both long-term and short-term solutions towards tackling climate change.
The short-term solution is to continue to fix the large gas leaks that are happening as a result of old infrastructure. New technology allows National Grid to see where the leaks are and how much gas they are leaking out.
The long-term solution, he said, would be to replace all of the pipelines with plastic, which aren’t prone to leaking. The goal is to get to a one percent leak rate by 2025.
“Over the past hundred years, energy has needed to be affordable and reliable,” said Chahbazpour. “But now, energy can no longer be affordable and reliable, but it also has to be sustainable.”
Chahbazpour said that although natural gas can be both affordable and reliable, it isn’t always sustainable. It wasn’t until recently, he said, that people were willing to pay a premium price for an energy source that is also sustainable.
“It is a double-edged sword,” said Chahbazpour. “The price for natural gas is still cheaper than renewables.”
He pointed a few ways that natural gas could involve in the future to be more sustainable.
The first is already in the works on Deer Island, which collects all of the sewage for the City. At the island, they capture the methane gas, known as biomass gas, from anaerobic digestion that is emitted from the sludge and captures it to power the rest of the plant. This can also be done at landfills and with food waste.
Although this method, in theory, is emitting carbon into the environment, it is considered carbon neutral because the carbon that is being discharged was already part of nature. It can be traced back to what is already in the atmosphere.
Whereas when coal or gas is utilized, it is releasing carbon starting from the earliest stage it has been sequestered for a large number of years.
The second method involved using the leftover energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar. Currently, there is no way to store the energy made by renewable energy and instead of losing it at the end of each day, it can be used to split water, making hydrogen fuel.
Chahbazpour said that a blend of natural gas with up to 10 to 15 percent of hydrogen fuel could be used with the same appliances used today.
One resident asked why the building wasn’t using electricity or thermal energy supply.
Smith said it is up to the developers to decide which source of energy they would like to use to power their buildings, so they have no say over why the building is not using thermal energy. Chahbazpour noted that as of today, that 100-percent electrical buildings have a bigger carbon footprint than if it uses natural gas.
“You have to look at the overall picture,” said Chahbazpour. “It is not that simple.”
During construction, National Grid will have a 24/7 hotline and website dedicated to the project.
National Grid committed to coordinating with abutting businesses and residents, saying they will coordinate deliveries to businesses and tell abutters for when parking restrictions will go into effect.
National Grid will begin the project later this month, and it will last between 12 and 15 months, depending on how fast they can receive permits.
“In order to reach our additional capacity this is an absolute need for us,” said Paul DiLorenzo, the project manager for National Grid.
Rev. Robert Mark, of the Church of the Covenant, said that 17 other congregations in the Back Bay signed a letter that stated they did not want to see this pipeline installed.
“I rise because I do not want to be here tonight. Many of us do not want to be here tonight discussing this,” said Mark. “Fossil fuel conversations should not be happening. Climate change is the biggest world issue of our day…I ask what type of conversations around morality are happening at the corporate level?”
“We don’t want to be doing this. There are plenty of other things, there’s homelessness, LGBTQ inequality we need to focus on, but this has become a major moral issue.”