SALEM — The chess match between state Rep. John Keenan and a powerful environmental organization continued this week when Keenan abandoned a legislative attempt to block appeals of a proposed $800 million natural gas power plant on the Salem waterfront.
On Christmas Eve, Keenan, who is chairman of the House energy committee, wrote to Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to announce that he was withdrawing a provision he added to a bill on natural gas leaks.
Keenan’s controversial “no appeals” amendment was added a few days after the Conservation Law Foundation filed an appeal with the state Supreme Judicial Court of a key permit granted to Footprint Power, the plant developer, by the state Energy Facilities Siting Board.
A strong supporter of the plant, Keenan accused the environmental group of filing a frivolous appeal in an effort to drag out the approval process and kill the proposed plant, which he said needs to secure all its permits before it can obtain financing, order equipment and begin construction.
The Salem representative said he abandoned his legislative maneuver after the state’s highest court granted a request to hear CLF’s appeal in an expedited, or timely, manner, possibly as soon as March.
“I am pleased that the SJC has recognized the urgency of this matter,” Keenan said in a statement. “The timing for this review has been my concern from the get-go and really the impetus for including this language.
“Although I am hopeful that an agreement can be reached between the parties, a timely SJC decision on the merits is certainly the next-best alternative, and I have asked for this language to be withdrawn from the bill.”
Keenan was harshly criticized by plant opponents and environmentalists for attempting to prevent legal appeals.
Shanna Cleveland, a senior attorney at the CLF, called the move “unconstitutional and unconscionable.”
Lori Ehrlich, a state representative from Marblehead and longtime environmental activist, accused Keenan of using “back-room tactics” to push a fossil fuel power plant that she contends is not needed.
Keenan said he took the “bold” step in an attempt to provide “finality and certainty” for a project he sees as vital to the “public safety and (energy) reliability” of Salem and the region.
As supporting evidence, Keenan pointed to recent statements by an official from ISO-New England, operators of the regional power grid, who said the proposed Salem plant is needed and that without it the region could face “controlled rolling blackouts.”
The current Salem Harbor Station, which burns coal and oil, is scheduled to close in May. The new 674-megawatt gas plant is scheduled to open in June 2016.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.