SALEM — A battle over a proposed natural gas power plant on the Salem waterfront has sparked a war of words between Salem’s state representative and a senior attorney for a leading environmental advocacy group.
On Wednesday, Rep. John Keenan, chairman of the House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, added language to a bill on gas leaks that he said would prevent “frivolous appeals likely to halt the (Salem) plant’s timely development,” according to a press release from Keenan’s office.
The bill was approved by Keenan’s committee but has not gone to the full House.
The language Keenan inserted is clearly aimed at the Conservation Law Foundation, which filed an appeal last week with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to overturn a state board’s approval of construction of the $800 million Salem plant, which Footprint Power, a New Jersey firm, plans to open in 2016.
Shanna Cleveland, a CLF attorney, termed Keenan’s action “unconstitutional and unconscionable.” It is a “Hail Mary pass,” she said, that could not withstand judicial review.
Keenan said he took the dramatic, and possibly unprecedented, step of trying to block legal appeals to this project because he feels construction of the 692-megawatt plant is a pressing public safety issue on a tight time line.
“I believe if the plant is not built by June 2016, there is a real potential for rolling brownouts,” he said.
As supporting evidence, Keenan pointed to a statement made this summer by an official at ISO New England, managers of the regional electricity grid.
“CLF claims that Footprint ‘is not necessary to ensure the continued supply of electricity to the region.’ CLF is simply wrong,” ISO’s General Counsel Raymond Hepper and another agency lawyer stated in an August letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“Without Footprint, there would be a shortage of capacity in the (region) for the 2016 through 2017 commitment period. In other words, without Footprint, the (region) would not meet reliability standards.”
Keenan said the plant has gone through an extensive local and state review, including a nearly one-year study by the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board, to which CLF was a party. A lengthy appeal could delay financing and construction of a power plant that is needed to ensure the region has enough electricity in 2016 and beyond, he said.
Cleveland took on Keenan yesterday in a blogpost on the CLF website.
“What would you sacrifice to have a power plant built in your backyard?” she wrote. “Apparently, for Rep. John D. Keenan of Salem, the answer is just about anything. Rep. Keenan is no stranger to handing out (or at least trying to hand out) sweetheart deals to power plant owners, but his latest attempt to get a power plant built in Salem, no matter the cost, is both unconstitutional and unconscionable.”
The “sweetheart deal” referred to is Keenan’s unsuccessful attempt earlier this year to pass legislation giving Footprint long-term contracts with guaranteed revenues.
Cleveland’s blogpost continued: “Unhappy with the pace of the permitting process for the new natural gas plant planned by Footprint ... Keenan has hijacked an otherwise well-intentioned legislative effort to protect workers and the public from aging natural gas infrastructure, and is holding it hostage by adding language that would exempt Footprint Power from every single environmental and public health standard and permitting regime in favor of as-of-right approvals.
“Keenan’s proposed language attempts to allow Footprint to make an end run around any pesky appeals by local residents. It even purports to strip residents of their rights to appeal a federal air permit on the grounds that this project somehow should be exempt from complying with the laws, regulations and public process that every other proposed power plant in the Commonwealth has had to satisfy.”
The environmental group has tried to block this project every step along the way and has lost, Keenan said. Now, they have resorted to a “frivolous” lawsuit, he said.
“I am the representative from Salem, and I am chairman of a committee,” said the Salem lawyer. “I wanted to be chairman of that committee because of this issue in this district. This is not a sweetheart deal for Footprint. I’m trying to protect my district and make sure we have enough electricity come June 2016.
“To suggest I’m somehow subverting the regulatory process ... This project has made it through every regulatory hoop and hurdle and has been unanimously approved every step of the way, and CLF has been there every step of the way. And now, because they have not got anybody to agree with them, they continue to drag it out.
“I think the compelling issue ... is that of a rolling brownout. I’m not going to suggest this is not an extraordinary measure. I agree it is, and I think the facts warrant it.”
CLF filed this appeal because no “credible evidence” was presented showing how the Salem plant will comply with greenhouse gas emission limits in the 2008 Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, Cleveland said. That law sets standards for reducing carbon emissions statewide in 2020 and 2050.
The group also dismissed the idea that the region risks brownouts if the plant is not built.
“The truth is that ISO-NE, the regional electric grid operator, has a responsibility to plan for alternatives if the power plant doesn’t progress on schedule — and many of those alternatives, such as already planned transmission upgrades, may be cheaper and less carbon-intensive,“ Cleveland said.
The Salem plant is the first proposed under the new state law. A lot is at stake, Cleveland said.
“The bottom line is that while natural gas may burn cleaner than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel with significant carbon emissions. Locking in new natural gas infrastructure means locking out zero-carbon technologies like wind and solar.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.