Oct. 18–PROVIDENCE — Federal regulators have approved construction of a $180-million natural gas processing plant proposed by National Grid on the Fields Point waterfront that won the support of labor unions and business groups but was opposed by environmental advocates, residents of nearby neighborhoods and a slate of elected officials that included Mayor Jorge Elorza.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued the decision for the project late Wednesday, addressing in the 51-page order the objections to the new plant that will liquefy natural gas, including concerns about safety, climate change and environmental justice, and concluding that “our approval of this proposal would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”
The commission was expected to authorize the project after agency staff released a favorable environmental assessment for the liquefaction facility last summer.
Timothy Horan, president of National Grid in Rhode Island, said that liquefied natural gas is an essential part of the region’s energy mix and that the plant will make the company’s operations more efficient.
“As we continue to drive the growth of renewable energy and innovations in energy efficiency, we are also obligated to provide the continued safe, reliable, affordable delivery of electricity and natural gas to our customers. This project will help us do just that,” he said.
In reaction to the decision, the group NO LNG IN PVD, which formed in opposition to the National Grid proposal, called the plant “shortsighted and dangerous,” and noted that the FERC order came less than two weeks after an international climate change panel issued a new report on the risks to the planet of continued emissions associated with fossil fuels.
Mayor Elorza gave credit to NO LNG IN PVD and expressed disappointment in the approval.
“By adding yet another environmental burden to the already overburdened communities of color in Providence, this facility is an affront to our city’s climate, energy and racial equity goals,” he said in a statement.
In 2015, National Grid came forward with the proposal to build a plant that would supercool natural gas diverted from a nearby pipeline to turn it into a liquid for easier storage at an LNG tank that has been in use off Allens Avenue since the 1970s.
The 127-foot-high tank is part of a backup system to channel natural gas to National Grid’s heating customers on the coldest winter days when demand for the fuel is highest.
It is currently supplied by truck deliveries of LNG imported from overseas to a terminal in Everett, Massachusetts. National Grid says that tapping into the pipeline that runs through Providence will ensure a more secure and potentially cheaper supply of natural gas from domestic shale fields to the west.
But opponents say that it means increasing Rhode Island’s dependence on shale gas recovered through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that can taint drinking water supplies, lead to leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and cause other environmental damage.
They argue that approving the plant will lock in more carbon emissions well into the future when society should instead be doing all it can to address the causes of climate change.
In its order, the commission rejected those concerns, saying that because the project isn’t expected to increase the use of natural gas it will not increase emissions.
“Comments that claim the proposed project will contribute to global climate change or encourage additional domestic natural gas production indicate a misunderstanding of this particular proposal,” the commission wrote.
It goes on to argue that the project will actually lead to a drop in emissions because it will displace foreign shipments of natural gas by tanker ships that emit greenhouse gases.
The order does not address the issue of “carbon lock-in,” the idea that once a company overcomes regulatory hurdles and the hefty financial burden of opening a new fossil fuel power plant or pipeline, it’s going to do everything it can to keep operating and recover its investment decades down the line.
Not all the commissioners were in agreement on the subject of climate change. Commissioners Richard Glick and Cheryl LaFleur disagreed with how the agency assessed emissions. They submitted a dissenting opinion on the potential social impacts of greenhouse gases, arguing that the agency should have done more to take into account the link between emissions and climate change in evaluating the project.
In their opposition to the plant, environmental groups and Providence residents also argued that the project is an issue of environmental justice. The area of South Providence where the plant would be built, populated by minorities and low-income residents, is already home to heavy industry.
In response, the commission said that it can’t look backward and assess past development but can only consider whether the proposal before it will have an adverse impact on minority or low-income communities.
“We do not dispute commenters’ claims that environmental conditions in the vicinity of Fields Point reflect its historic use as a site for industrial operations; however, we anticipate the additional environmental degradation the proposed project may cause would be minimal, and would not result in high and adverse impacts on affected populations,” the commission said.
Opposition to the plant peaked last year when the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council held hearings on whether the project is consistent with the state’s coastal policies. Despite their objections, the council issued a consistency determination.
At the time, CRMC executive director Grover Fugate said that much of the agency’s authority over the project is preempted by the FERC. The federal government also denied the council’s request to consider the climate change impacts of the plant, Fugate said.
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