PORTSMOUTH – Ever since a faulty valve in Weymouth, Massachusetts, caused Enbridge’s Algonquin natural gas pipeline to fail in January 2019 and threw Newport County residents into a heating crisis for a week, Portsmouth Town Councilor Keith Hamilton has been advocating for new natural gas infrastructure on Aquidneck Island.
Specifically, he wants a second pipeline connected to the island, both to serve as a redundancy for the existing line and to complete a loop system that would connect the island to the larger regional transmission network from two directions and address the potentially catastrophic issue of low pressure in the lines.
As Rhode Island begins the statewide process of working towards ambitious emissions reduction goals set forth in the 2021 Act on Climate (10% below 1990 levels by 2020; 45% below 1990 levels by 2030; 80% below 1990 levels by 2040; net-zero emissions by 2050) environmental and clean energy advocates such as the Acadia Center are calling for a complete moratorium on natural gas infrastructure, including a ban on residential and commercial hook-ups in new developments.
Hank Webster, senior policy advocate and Rhode Island director of the environmental policy non-profit Acadia Center, comes to a very different conclusion than Hamilton.
In a text message to the Daily News, Webster said, “We don’t think the (Old Mill Lane LNG storage) facility is necessary if (Rhode Island Energy) instead pursued investing in improvements that actually benefitted their customers, like weatherization, cleaner, safer appliances, and demand response programs. Proposals to build new infrastructure only benefit the companies building the project and the companies selling the gas.”
He continued, “Let’s not forget that the federal and state government found that the January 2019 outage only occurred because of an extraordinary coincidence of management failures and lack of attention to existing infrastructure like an upstream valve and backup power module. Without any one of those, the outage would not have occurred, and we would not be seeing these proposals for new long-lived infrastructure.”
Despite the state’s continued reliance on natural gas and local concern in both Middletown and Portsmouth about the siting of an industrial LNG storage facility in a residential neighborhood, there seems to be limited appetite at the state level for an infrastructure project of the magnitude Hamilton has in mind. This is not least because pushing for a second pipeline to the island would necessitate a huge political battle at a time when Acadia Center and other Act on Climate advocates in the state legislature and in the ranks of Rhode Island’s registered lobbyists are beginning to actively fight for a moratorium on natural gas infrastructure and eventually full abandonment of natural gas as an energy source.
Despite mounting public backlash from neighbors who have seen the facility in their backyards expand its capacity from one to five portable LNG tanks over the course of the past four winters, public documents submitted by Rhode Island Energy to the PUC and the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board indicate this “temporary situation” is likely to be in place for at least another decade to come, at an estimated cost of $31 million as opposed to $147 million for the construction of a second pipeline extending from the main line in southern Massachusetts. Webster and Acadia Center’s preferred solution, weatherization and electrification, is the most expensive option at $190 million.