The fight against fossil fuel expansion in New England has a new front in Killingly, Connecticut. Climate activists want the state to reject a proposed natural gas plant there, which is tied to the company behind a controversial pipeline development currently underway in Minnesota and a recently completed natural gas line in New England.
Connecticut's activists say construction of new climate-warming infrastructure like this is out of step with the clean energy goals of most New England’s governors and President Joe Biden.
This month, a group of climate activists went door-to-door to banks in New Haven, Connecticut, to tell management to divest from energy projects that contribute to greenhouse gas pollution.
Melinda Tuhus, a long-time climate activist, and the group made stops at TD Bank, Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo, all banks that have provided financial support to the energy company Enbridge, which is currently working to upgrade a 1,000-mile pipeline and have it carry tar sands oil from Canada across Indigenous land in Minnesota to a crude oil transportation hub on Lake Superior.
“People haven’t been sitting down — doing incredibly creative, courageous and non-violent civil disobedience and halting construction for various periods of time,” Tuhus said.
To activists, the danger — in addition to the destruction of tribal territory — is that the breakdown of sands oil into gasoline releases up to three times the carbon emissions of crude oil.
Enbridge had another pipeline project that Tuhus said is a lot closer to home. The Atlantic Bridge project was started in 2017 in New England and now pumps natural gas through New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine.
“Enbridge, the same company that's building Line 3, is the one that builds the pipeline right across our state,” Tuhus said. “It's enabling more fracked gas to be built and consumed in our state.”
And it's made Killingly, a small northeastern Connecticut town near the border of Rhode Island, a viable location for gas expansion by Florida-based developers NTE Energy.
“Connecticut doesn't need this energy even less so as New England states are building offshore wind for clean power,” Tuhus said.
Environmental groups have sued to block the Killingly project in Connecticut Supreme Court. They argue it’s counter productive to meet President Joe Biden’s clean energy goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Most New England states have their own goals to neutralize emissions by 2050.
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has also opposed the Killingly project. And he blames the regional power grid operator, ISO New England, for hosting a marketplace that he said prioritizes reliability and price without accounting for carbon emissions.
“The ISO oversees the wholesale markets. And so, resources come in and compete in that market. Killingly cleared the capacity market that we administer. And so it took on an obligation to be built to provide capacity for the region,” George said.
ISO spokesperson Ann George said states control what gets built within their borders. And the Lamont administration has also approved permits that allow the Killingly project’s progression.
“Natural gas resources are going to be important for getting to that clean energy future,” George said. “The thought … that we can just flip the switch now and move directly to a clean energy future, you really do need to transition, you really do need to have those balancing resources there that can help out when the wind and solar aren't producing.”
She said that means the regional power grid would need to call on gas-fired plants to hold them over for at least the next few decades.
“We are going to need increased levels of reserves of redundancies on the system to ensure that we don't go into shortage,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a trade group that represents the power plants.
He said reliability, however it's ensured, is important in extreme weather.
“We only need to look at the experiences over the last year in places like Texas and California to see the real world effects of what happens when the electricity system doesn't function as people expect,” Dolan said.
Lee Hoffman, a lawyer who has represented other natural gas plant proposals in the region, said new, more efficient gas-fired plants could be worth the investment.
“The problem is, we still have power plants in our fleet that are the functional equivalent of a 1972 Buick,” Hoffman said. “And if you had your choice of driving a Honda Fit, if we're just talking about fuel economy, versus a 1972, Buick, you'd obviously want to drive the Honda Fit, because the Honda Fit gets you more miles to the gallon. Thus it is with power plants.”
Hoffman said there would be a significant carbon emission reduction if old natural gas plants were replaced with a new gas fleet, starting with Killingly.
“If it comes online, it's going to knock out some of the older power plants that aren't all that efficient, that have a lot more emissions per megawatt hour of electricity generated. And you'd prefer to have those be offline,” he said.
Another holdup for the Killingly project is an Eversource natural gas pipeline that would connect the Enbridge line to the proposed power plant. State regulators could make their decision on that pipeline as early as this summer.
Bill Ackley, vice president of natural gas at Eversource, said the region needs to balance an immediate need for safe and reliable power today against the developing renewable energy projects of tomorrow. And he said he believes natural gas is that bridge fuel.
“Natural gas for the short term — which is, today, the number one energy source for providing electricity in the region — obviously plays a key role to be able to manage or mitigate those periods, when you don't have access to enough power to meet the demand,” said Bill Ackley, vice president of natural gas at Eversource.
“I think this [Killingly] has the technology and efficiency and cost effective service,” he said. “A new plan is obviously going to bring the best of the best to the market. I would imagine this is the best technology available.”
But some climate activists disagree.
“Stop funding oil. Stop funding gas,” said Ben Martin, with 350CT, a renewable energy advocacy group. “Stop funding the destruction of the planet, because when we lose, you lose. And we would like to live a little longer than your money allows us to.”
To him, state regulators and financial institutions that have promised divestment from fossil fuels need to figure out where to draw the line on new pipelines and power plants.
This story was produced in collaboration with WNPR’s Patrick Skahill, NHPR’s Annie Ropeik, and the New England News Collaborative.