Massachusetts Considers Using More Oil for Electricity

Published January 1, 2006

Fearing a cold winter could force rolling electricity blackouts across the state, Massachusetts officials are considering allowing four large power plants to switch from natural gas to oil.

Natural Gas Supply Limited

According to Massachusetts energy officials, infrastructure shortcomings and strained natural gas supplies limit the amount of electricity area power plants can produce from natural gas. An extended cold spell could cause demand to swell beyond capacity, resulting in rolling blackouts unless there is a backup plan in place.

While generating electricity from oil results in more pollution than generating electricity with natural gas, more pollution may be preferable to intermittent heat and power blackouts. Government officials in Massachusetts began reviewing energy needs after Hurricane Katrina disrupted natural gas supplies and led to greatly increased natural gas prices. Natural gas production in the Gulf region is still at less than half of its pre-Katrina level, and it is expected to take several more months before pre-Katrina gas production levels are resumed.

State Considers Proactive Approach

“We wanted to be proactive, rather than reactive, and so we started reviewing what we could do,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The DEP is considering recommendations to the governor that would allow four power plants to burn oil for a prolonged period of time.

The plants are among 350 facilities that contribute to the New England Power Grid, which supplies power to six states. Nearly 40 percent of the grid’s power is produced with clean-burning natural gas, and all of the plants added in the past decade produce electricity using only natural gas. Nationwide, about a quarter of the electricity supply is produced using natural gas.

The four plants are located in Bellingham, Dartmouth, Pittsfield, and Springfield. They are subject to state and federal regulations limiting the numbers of days each year during which they can produce electricity using oil. The state regulations are more restrictive than the federal rules.

The state’s DEP may recommend scuttling the state standard and adopting the federal standard for days when burning oil may be needed. For example, according to Coletta, adopting the federal standard would allow the Bellingham plant to burn oil an additional 6.4 days during the year and would allow the Dartmouth plant an additional 31.9 days of oil burning.

Clean Air Still Protected

Adopting the federal regulations to allow for the increased oil burning would not lead to “unlimited burning of oil in electricity plants,” Coletta said. Coletta noted the dual fuel-burning plants often have used oil on fewer days than they were permitted during recent winters.

Environmental activist groups in Massachusetts have expressed concern about any regulatory changes. Seth Kaplan, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, told the Boston Globe on October 19, “My antenna is definitely up about it because of who is in the discussion–the owners of some of the nastiest, most polluting power plants in Massachusetts.”

It would take a very substantial increase in oil burning this winter to approach federal or even the more restrictive state clean air limits. For example, DEP data show regional power company MassPower was authorized to burn 15,000 gallons of oil last year but burned less than 300 gallons. MassPower’s Bellingham plant, one of the four plants that may receive a higher oil-burning allowance this year, burned only 5 percent of its oil-burning allowance in 2004.

Conservation Not Enough

While Kaplan argued the state should push energy conservation instead of increased power capacity, Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis rejected a return to a 1970s energy strategy.

“The wheel has completely turned, and the irony is over the top,” Lewis said.

“The reason why the U.S. switched from oil to coal in the 1970s was because we were becoming too dependent on petroleum imports. Environmental activists pushed a switch from oil to coal, and then from coal to natural gas. Now that the activists oppose new domestic natural gas production and block construction of natural gas import facilities, states like Massachusetts are required to consider more oil power. This is not what is best for consumer welfare, although it does show there is poetic justice in the world.”

Moreover, said Lewis, “We tried this ‘energy conservation’ approach before, and it led to the nightmare known as the 1970s. You cannot restrict energy production and then magically ‘conserve’ your way into self-sufficient energy supplies.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.