A New Massachusetts 'Sustainable Energy' Coalition Is Really A Front For Gas Interests

Despite its green-sounding name, the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy represents companies who want to build more natural gas pipelines.
Peter Power / Reuters

To the untrained eye, the website for the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy looks like just another Massachusetts-based advocacy group. It’s not clear that the site is actually sponsored by major energy and utility companies seeking to build more gas pipelines in the region.

The members page lists a number of generic-sounding state business groups, including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, The Business Roundtable and Associated Industries of Massachusetts. It doesn’t include the group’s other funding members – Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge, and the powerful gas-based utilities Eversource and National Grid. It’s also not readily apparent that the website is being run by the lobbying firm currently working for Enbridge as it seeks approval for its Atlantic Bridge Project in the state.

Launched earlier this month, the coalition is the latest industry attempt to insert an astroturf campaign into regional battles over energy and pipeline infrastructure. Despite its green-sounding name, it is mainly advocating for a fossil fuel: natural gas.

In its first move, the coalition sent a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) on Feb. 7 decrying the state’s high energy costs and warning of potential reliability problems in the power system.

Baker, who’s been a staunch supporter of more pipelines as part of what he calls a “combo platter” approach to energy sources, is facing increasing pressure from activists, state legislators and his own attorney general to deny new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Arguing that complete independence from fossil fuels is “decades away,” the new group called on Baker to “enact policies that will result in increasing our access to natural gas as we increase deployment of renewable technologies.”

The downtown Boston address listed on the coalition’s website belongs to the lobbying firm Pilgrim Strategies LLC. Bill Ryan, Pilgrim Strategies’ founding partner, confirmed to HuffPost that his company provides public relations consulting to the coalition, and that Enbridge, Eversource and National Grid are among the funders backing it.

All three companies are currently trying to revive the Access Northeast gas project, a proposed upgrade to Enbridge’s Algonquin Pipeline that was shelved last year when the state’s Supreme Court struck down a proposal to partially fund the project though Massachusetts ratepayers. Enbridge is also presently seeking several permits for the Atlantic Bridge Project, another pipeline extension.

Ryan said the companies are not listed on the coalition’s website because “it’s the state’s main business organizations that are the ones driving this message about increased energy costs in Massachusetts and how they adversely affect businesses in the state.”

Enbridge in particular would greatly benefit if state policymakers and regulators embrace the group’s message. Enbridge (and its predecessor in the region, Spectra Energy, which Enbridge purchased last year) needs state permits for the Atlantic Bridge Project. Despite receiving an authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year, the project’s Massachusetts segment is stalled.

One particularly contentious issue involves a planned compressor station in a residential part of the town of Weymouth, just south of Boston. Following fierce local opposition focusing on toxic emissions and climate change fears, Gov. Baker ordered state agencies last summer to conduct an extensive health assessment of the station before issuing any permits, which is still ongoing.

Ryan confirmed that his firm still provides public relations services to Enbridge on the Atlantic Bridge Project, but claimed this work is separate from its representation of the new coalition. “The coalition is not advocating for any particular pipeline project,” Ryan said, “just for increasing pipeline capacity in the region in general.”

“This new group wants Massachusetts to put all its eggs in one basket full of fracked gas."”

- David Ismay, senior attorney at the Massachusetts office of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Marylee Hanley, a spokeswoman for Enbridge, said the company supports “the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy’s goal of helping Massachusetts meet the energy needs of residents and businesses by increasing the region’s access to natural gas.”

“New England and Massachusetts would benefit from additional natural gas pipeline capacity,” she said. “The region faces some of the highest energy costs in the United States due in large part to limited access to clean-burning natural gas.”

But Enbridge and the other coalition partners can also potentially benefit from Pilgrim Strategies’ links to Baker, who has longstanding ties to Enbridge’s Massachusetts lobbying firm. Pilgrim Strategies is an affiliate of another lobbying company, Beacon Hill Consulting Group (BHCG), with both firms sharing the same Boston address. BHCG’s founding partner, lobbyist John Bartley, serves on the finance committee for Gov. Baker’s re-election campaign. Another affiliate listed on BHCG’s website is consultant Jim Conroy, Baker’s top political adviser. BHCG’s Bartley says his firm is currently working with Pilgrim Strategies in representing a casino company, but not the new coalition. Jim Conroy also says he has no involvement with the coalition.

Despite the coalition’s stated emphasis on pursuing a renewable energy future, environmental groups argue that its overarching focus on natural gas deployment undermines its credibility. “This new group wants Massachusetts to put all its eggs in one basket full of fracked gas,” said David Ismay, senior attorney at the Massachusetts office of the Conservation Law Foundation.

The coalition argues that increasing the use of natural gas will lower CO2 emissions and “enhance Massachusetts’s position as a leader on climate change.” But environmental groups argue it doesn’t say anything about the increase in methane emissions ― a more potent greenhouse gas ― related to the extraction and transportation of natural gas.

Instead of encouraging fracking, the groups argue, the state should invest in energy efficiency, renewables and fixing gas leaks.

“The people of this state want real energy diversity powered by the wind off our coast and the sun overhead, and they want the jobs and clean air that will come with it,” said Ismay. “They know that burning fossil fuels like shale gas is the problem not the solution. The future of energy in Massachusetts is clean; gas is over.”

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