By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — Things are looking good for Footprint Power and the 630-megawatt natural gas power plant it wants to build on the present site of Salem Harbor Station.
The New Jersey developer has reached a tentative agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation, the environmental organization that appealed an important approval the $800 million project received last year from a state energy board.
The settlement ends months of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the future of the proposed plant, an effort that drew in local officials, including state Rep. John Keenan and Mayor Kim Driscoll, both of whom argued the project was vital to the city and region.
Under the terms of the agreement, Footprint is required to keep its carbon dioxide emissions below a set level — 2,279,530 tons per year — until 2025, and then at lower and lower levels each year afterward, as is spelled out under the 2008 Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act. Among other things, CLF had argued in its lawsuit that Footprint hadn’t shown that the new power plant would comply with emission standards set by the act.
As part of the settlement, Footprint also has agreed to end the plant’s commercial operations by the end of 2049 and to completely decommission it within the following two years.
Driscoll said yesterday that she was “very happy” about the settlement, though she noted it still needs approval from the Energy Facilities Siting Board in order to become final.
“I think it’s fair to say that we thought all along this was a project that was good for the city, good for the commonwealth and good for the environment,” Driscoll said.
Footprint President Scott Silverstein also applauded the agreement, saying that the carbon emissions requirements reflected the company’s commitment to the environment.
“We’re happy to have found that framework and to reach an agreement on how we demonstrate that,” he said. “This is a good day for the project; it’s a good for the city of Salem ... to be able to put some of these challenges behind us and move on to the next step.”
Footprint hoped to have the lawsuit resolved quickly, as it anticipated opening in June 2016 and needed 29 months to build the plant, before which it needed to obtain financing and order equipment. Silverstein said that while the lawsuit “certainly put pressure on the timeline,” he still expected the plant would be constructed and ready for operation on schedule.
The agreement was also praised by HealthLink, a Swampscott-based environmental organization that continues to oppose the plant.
“We applaud CLF for putting some constraints on this plant,” said organization President Jane Bright. “I think it’s a very good step to contain the damage that this plant would do.”
Bright said the settlement was precedent-setting, as it involves what’s likely to be the first power plant built in the state since the aforementioned state global warming act.
Jeff Barz-Snell, co-chair at the Salem Alliance for the Environment, said he was happy that the project could move forward and that the agreement seemed fair.
“I think if you are going to build a fossil-fuel power plant ... you have to think about carbon emissions,” he said. “The agreement forces Footprint to do that.”
Barz-Snell’s organization broke with other environmental groups to support the plant, a decision he said was based on the proposed plant’s efficiency and design.
“This is exactly the sort of plant that you need as a transitional step between an electric grid mainly reliant on fossil fuels to one that is going to mainly rely on renewables,” Barz-Snell said.
CLF itself called the agreement “groundbreaking” in a statement yesterday.
“This agreement shows how natural gas can be a tool for reducing greenhouse emissions if it is appropriately conditioned and constrained in a manner that is consistent with the need to decarbonize our energy system,” said CLF attorney Shanna Cleveland in the statement.
Another part of the settlement mandates that Footprint work with CLF to obtain information from Algonquin Gas regarding the Salem Lateral, the 1.2-mile pipeline the company intends to build to bring natural gas to the new power plant.
The information will be used to “ensure that the construction methods will appropriately protect the environment and will demonstrate that the construction of the lateral will not serve to increase the capacity of Algonquin’s system,” according to the settlement.
“Upon receipt of such satisfactory information ... CLF agrees not to protest or appeal or otherwise delay any approval of such lateral.”
Local officials had worried that CLF’s legal maneuvering could derail the Footprint project altogether, leaving the city without its largest taxpayer and with an abandoned industrial site on its waterfront. Supporters of the incoming plant also argued that replacing a coal- and oil-burning plant with a natural gas-fired one amounted to environmental progress, and ISO-New England, the regional power grid operator, argued that there could be blackouts should the new plant not get built.
Opponents of the plant, including state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, argued that the plant’s supporters were playing down its environmental hazards and playing up how much it’s needed to support the power grid.
Salem Harbor Station is slated to close on May 31, though half of its generators have already been shut down. In addition to building the new power plant, the Footprint project would clean up the 65-acre waterfront site and repurpose 40 acres of it.
Two Salem residents have mounted a legal challenge to the plant on a local level, hoping to overturn approvals from Salem’s Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. The status of those challenges, or what effect the settlement might have on them, is unclear.
CLF had previously lobbied that the Salem Harbor Station be closed and alleged in a 2010 lawsuit that it had violated the Federal Clean Air Act nearly 300 times between 2005 and 2009. As a result of that lawsuit, the plant agreed it wouldn’t burn coal past 2014.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.