A regional environmental group says New England’s governors are plotting the region’s energy future behind closed doors. And the advocates worry that Vermonters will end up footing the bill for natural gas pipelines that could widen the Northeast’s carbon footprint.
The New England States Committee on Electricity has been around since 2006, when the governors of six states created the nonprofit to oversee regional electricity planning. The group made big news earlier this year when it announced plans for a controversial expansion of energy infrastructure.
The proposal is still a work in progress. But it calls for increased capacity of natural gas pipelines, as well as new transmission lines to bring electricity into New England, most likely from hydropower facilities in Canada.
Sandra Levine, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation of Vermont, says NESCOE’s deliberations have been shrouded in secrecy.
“It’s being developed at a regional level behind closed doors with little input or oversight from the public," Levine says.
And she says NESCOE’s plans could increase reliance on fossil fuels for electricity at a time when states ought to be looking for ways to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s likely that the New England governors' efforts are dampening efforts at renewable energy locally, throughout the region,” she says.
Since the investments are supported by ratepayers across the region, Levine says that Vermonters might end up paying for natural gas projects even though the benefits would flow primarily to southern New England.
“So it’s unclear specifically what Vermont benefits are, yet it’s pretty clear that Vermont consumers would be on the hook to pay for this,” Levine says.
Chris Recchia is the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, and serves as Gov. Peter Shumlin’s appointee to NESCOE. Recchia says ratepayers here can rest assured they won’t be asked to subsidize the energy needs of Massachusetts or Connecticut.
“We will make sure that any project that’s proposed, regardless of where it is, is of benefit to Vermont, and we will not be paying for something that doesn’t benefit Vermont,” Recchia says.
Recchia says he and Shumlin are committed to avoiding investments in natural gas that prolong the region’s reliance on fossil fuels. But Recchia says that natural-gas-fueled electricity generation plants didn’t have enough supply to operate at full capacity last winter. And he says that forced the region to burn dirtier fossil fuels, at higher costs to ratepayers.
“We are rightly or wrongly more depending on those gas generators in the near future, hopefully not in the long term. That’s not our plan,” he says.
The Conservation Law Foundation is appealing NESCOE’s claim that it is exempt from state and federal public records laws. CLF is also challenging the Shumlin administration’s assertion that some communications related to the NESCOE energy proposal are exempt from the Vermont open records law.
Recchia says he anticipates that NESCOE will present a detailed energy infrastructure expansion proposal in several months. He says CLF, other advocates and the public will have a chance to weigh in. Any proposals for infrastructure improvements will have to be approved by regulators of the states where they’d be built.