Business lawyer attacks environmental group over New England natural gas expansion plan

Energy Associated Press

A new fight has emerged over efforts to shift New England from oil and coal to lower cost natural gas.

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Plans by New England's governors and energy officials to expand natural gas in the six states have drawn fights in the past year among energy companies, environmentalists and local and state officials. Now, a lawyer who represents a pipeline company, manufacturers and two organized labor groups is accusing environmental advocates of abandoning their early support for cleaner energy and trying to block pipeline projects.

Anthony Buxton, a Portland, Maine, lawyer who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group and two labor union organizations, has taken his complaint about the Conservation Law Foundation to Maine utility regulators.

"CLF's energy hypocrisy in promoting the construction of more than 20 natural gas plants and then preventing them from getting the gas they need is very dangerous," he said.

The Boston environmental group, which has questioned the transparency of New England's governors and state energy officials seeking to expand natural gas use, says Buxton is misrepresenting its position.

Greg Cunningham, senior attorney at CLF, said environmentalists urged an expansion of natural gas in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a clean alternative to more common oil- and coal-fired plants.

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"We completely stand by that advocacy today," he said.

The argument now, he said, is not whether power plants will be fired by natural gas but whether ratepayers should subsidize the construction of gas pipelines, Cunningham said. Investors are stepping forward, which should be encouraged, Cunningham said.

CLF has challenged how energy policy is coordinated by New England's six governors, saying the state leaders are conducting private negotiations with the energy industry. Environmentalists submitted public records requests demanding more transparency.

The governors late last year announced a plan to expand natural gas use. They asked the region's grid operator, ISO-New England, for technical help to seek proposals to build transmission equipment and public works to deliver electricity to as many as 3.6 million homes. They also asked ISO to figure out how to finance the project.

A proposal that would impose federal tariffs on electric ratepayers to finance energy infrastructure projects is on hold. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is seeking a delay while his administration analyzes different energy scenarios, including a plan that does not call for building extensive natural gas pipelines.

Buxton says a June 2001 statement published by CLF backing natural-gas-fired power plants demonstrates the environmental group's support for natural gas. He is asking the Maine Public Utilities Commission to include the statement in its consideration of a new policy promoting expansion of natural gas pipelines. It was previously excluded.

The United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 716 and Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council have joined Buxton's filing before Maine regulators.

"All we're looking to do is get some clean natural gas," said John Napolitano, business manager at Local 716 and president of the Building and Construction Trades Council. "It will bring more work for our guys, too."

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