Higher Natural Gas Prices Can't Be Separated from Old Battles over Pipeline

Monday, November 15, 2021

Remember that company from Texas, Kinder Morgan, that proposed in 2014 to bring bountiful Marcellus Shale gas from Pennsylvania to New England via a new pipeline across northern Massachusetts?  

Remember how Massachusetts basically told Kinder Morgan to get stuffed? 

(The list of influential politicians willing to support the plan had zero names on it.) 

Remember how so many of our leaders questioned the rationale for the project: that we needed more natural gas and a new pipeline was required to deliver it? 

Focus now on the present.  New Englanders are facing steep price increases for natural gas and other fuels.  On Sept. 20, Bloomberg reported, "Natural gas futures have been soaring, and they're set to get especially high in New England and California in the coming months."

Available inventories of gas, Bloomberg explained, "are tight to the point where a harsh winter could mean a supply crunch.  Any shortages would have an outsized impact on New England, where limited pipeline capacity makes it harder to bring gas from Appalachia."

In its latest Winter Energy Market and Reliability Assessment, ISO New England, which oversees the regional power grid, noted:

"Natural gas availability is more of a concern in New England due to the size of New England's peak winter natural gas demand combined with the limited number of pipelines and available pipeline capacity into the region...New England is served by three major natural gas importing pipelines; however, despite a few expansions, this capacity has remained largely unchanged for decades."

In April 2016, Kinder Morgan suspended efforts to win the necessary approvals for its $3.3 billion Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline project, citing inadequate commitments from prospective gas customers.

In response, the Governor Baker administration said it believed the company's decision "highlights the pressing need to secure cost-effective hydropower and other renewable energy resources to meet the growing demand for affordable energy in Massachusetts and New England."  That was a reference to the plan to connect Massachusetts to hydroelectric power sources in Canada, which would involve new electric transmission lines within a 145-mile-long corridor cut through untouched forests in Maine.  

On Nov. 2, Maine voters approved a ballot question opposing this plan and requiring the Maine legislature to approve projects of this nature.  

Somewhere, Paul LePage must have been smiling.  

LePage was governor of  Maine when Kinder Morgan was pushing for the NED pipeline through Massachusetts and he supported it as heartily as Baker now supports hydropower from Quebec because it would have supplied a lot more gas to Maine and given a much needed boost to his state's economy.

Mainers were, of course, aware in 2016 that Massachusetts did not concern itself with how its actions relative to the pipeline might crush their ambitions, which leads to this question:  Was the Maine ballot question against Quebec hydropower transmission lines karmic payback for the loss of the NED pipeline?

Charlie Baker certainly hopes not.  

Asked on Nov. 4 if he saw the passage of the anti-hydropower referendum as the death knell for that project, Baker said, "No, I don't see it as dead."  There's talk of challenging the referendum in court as "unconstitutional," but details on such a move have yet to emerge.







Best Contact Tracing Tool Was Out of Bounds. What About in Next Pandemic?

Saturday, November 6, 2021

The administration of Governor Charlie Baker has decided to shut down the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative the end of this year and turn over all COVID-19 contact tracing to local boards of health.  To facilitate the transition, the administration will award more than $15 million in grants to the local boards.  It was during the second month of the pandemic here, April 2020, that the collaborative was set up to limit the spread of COVID-19 by contacting persons who were likely exposed to infected persons and getting them tested.

From April 2020 through nearly the end of October 2021, the state's Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) reports that the collaborative and local boards of health traced and found contacts for 1.1 million COVID-19 cases.  (The boards traced about 35 percent of all cases.)

The agency points out that, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was "limited (COVID-19) testing capability, minimal therapeutic interventions and no vaccines," whereas today, "...Massachusetts is a national leader in vaccine administration and free testing, and (has) the second lowest COVID-19 hospitalization rate and case positivity rates in the nation."

As of Nov. 4, Massachusetts has had 858,000 cases of COVID-19 and 19,046 deaths from the disease.  Overall, our state coped very well with this unprecedented public health emergency.  

Yes, we can be proud of how Massachusetts has dealt with the pandemic.  But that cannot mean that any errors, oversights and deficiencies in our pandemic performance should be minimized or ignored.  

Instead, we should be examining all of the ways our state and nation could have prepared better for, and responded better to, COVID-19.  Especially, we should pay close attention to the beginning of the pandemic, the period when the chances of containing the disease were the highest.  

Much has already been said and written on this subject -- but not nearly as much as will be said and written on it in the coming years... 

Exercising the blogger's prerogative, I'm going to hold up for renewed consideration a column written several months ago by a friend of mine, Tom Kelly, which appeared in CommonWealth Magazine under the headline, "Safety should trump privacy in next pandemic.  Phone geo-tracking data could save thousands of lives."  

"Historians of the future," Kelly wrote, "will not excuse the many ways we made the pandemic worse than it had to be; for example, how we failed to foresee the critical role that communications technology could have played in halting the spread of the coronavirus, and how we failed to establish beforehand the necessary legal and logistical structures to exploit that technology when it was needed most."

Those historians, he continued, "...will ask why, when Americans first started falling ill with COVID, we were not able or even willing to use geo-tracking data in those patients' smart phones to trace everyone they may have been in contact with and to get those 'contacts' quickly tested and isolated?"

Kelly has a provocative thesis: We have been acting throughout this crisis as if privacy rights are immutable, but they are not.  "Privacy rights can and should be adjusted -- temporarily -- in a true national health emergency," he wrote.

Here's a key passage from his column:

"...we need to be talking now about adopting new laws and policies that would allow government agencies, in an explicitly defined health emergency, to access personal information that has the potential, in the aggregate, to prevent deaths on a massive scale.

"The laws and policies I'm talking about would need to have strong, built-in privacy protections concerning the collection, transmission, and analysis of digital data.  These things would be difficult to write and enact.  But, with memories fresh in our minds of all the damage COVID has wrought, I believe we could get it done."

Kelly supported his thesis by citing the leadership meeting convened by Biogen in Boston on Feb. 26-27, 2020, which became a COVID-19 super-spreader event.  There were 99 individuals who left that meeting having been exposed to the disease who became responsible, ultimately, for as many as 300,000 COVID-19 cases in 29 states, according to "Science," the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"To those who believe in the immutability of privacy rights," Kelly wrote, "I would pose this question: Knowing now how a new strain of the coronavirus can quickly turn 99 cases of the illness into 300,000, can you really say you'd stick to that position, no matter what, in another pandemic?" 

Please read Kelly's entire piece.  It may be found at: 

https://commonwealthmagazine.org/opinion/safety-should-trump-privacy-in-next-pandemic/


Over the Mystic: Baker's All In on This Project

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Baker administration anticipated the grumbling that would follow in the wake of its announcement last week that it was going forward with a $35 million project to build a 785-foot-long pedestrian and bicyclist bridge over the Mystic River linking the Encore casino site in Everett to Assembly Square in Somerville.  

Administration officials came to the Oct. 22 announcement ceremony armed with facts on how the bridge would help both people and the environment, and on how much it would do for communities deemed both Gateway Cities and areas deserving of "environmental justice" improvements.

Gateway Cities serve as foundations and hubs for economic activities that drive the economies of their regions.  In Massachusetts, the legislature has designated 26 Gateway Cities, including Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Malden, Revere and Worcester.

A neighborhood conforms to the Commonwealth's definition of an environmental justice area if it meets one or more of the following criteria: 1. the annual median household income is not more than 65 percent of the statewide annual median household income; 2. minorities comprise 40 percent or more of the population; 3. Twenty-five percent or more of households lack English language proficiency; or 4. minorities comprise 25 percent or more of the population and the annual median household income of the municipality in which the neighborhood is located does not exceed 150 percent of the statewide annual median household income.

Three days after the Baker administration announced it is fully committed to "completing the design, permitting and construction of the Mystic River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge," The Boston Globe published an opinion column under the headline, "A bridge to a casino, but not to a recovery center."  

The columnist juxtaposed the all-positive story from the administration on the pedestrian/bicyclist bridge with the long-stalled project to rebuild the bridge from Quincy to Long Island (in Boston Harbor), which would enable the City of Boston to re-open a desperately needed substance abuse treatment facility on the island, writing:

"In this tale of two bridges, is there a more textbook case about what society and government deem important?  As Alex Green, who teaches public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School tweeted over the weekend: 'Bridge to casino.  No bridge to massive Long Island rehab facility.  Massachusetts priorities, one decision at a time.' "

Closed due to safety concerns in October 2014, the Long Island bridge had to be demolished several months later.  Boston has since been attempting to rebuild it but has been blocked at every turn in the process by the City of Quincy.  The matter remains mired in the courts.  

Count me among those who believe the Mystic River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge is a great idea and a great investment by the state -- even if it plumps up the bottom line of Encore's owner,  Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts.  (I say that as a lifelong, committed non-gambler.)

The bridge may help some gamblers get from Somerville to the casino and back, but I can't imagine there'll be lots of gamblers making it their primary route to the Encore.  The walk will be too much like work for most of the folks who get their kicks sitting for hours in front of slot machines.  And why would they walk to the casino when they can take a free shuttle to it from the Wellington T station, just one stop away from Assembly Square on the Orange Line?

The main beneficiaries of the bridge will be: (a) bicyclists who will no longer have to risk their lives on the traffic-clogged Alford Street Bridge (Route 99) from Everett to Somerville, (b) persons of humble circumstances from Somerville who will find it easier to take jobs at the casino, and (c) persons of humble circumstances from Everett who will find it easier to take jobs at the offices, apartment and condo complexes, shops and restaurants in the boomtown created by Somerville at Assembly Square.

The no-vehicle/no-carbon-emissions bridge will also open up new possibilities for people and enterprises beyond Everett and Somerville because it will connect the Northern Strand, one of the most popular pedestrian and bike trails in Greater Boston, to Somerville and adjoining municipalities.  

The Northern Strand is built mainly on old, abandoned freight railroad lines.  It begins in Lynn and courses for eleven-and-a half miles through Saugus, Malden, Revere and Everett before culminating on the banks of the Mystic.  

Once the new bridge is in place, anyone will be able to use the Northern Strand to bike, run or walk uninterrupted all the way to Somerville -- and, if they're especially fit and energetic, from Somerville to points in Boston, Cambridge and beyond. 

Through this bridge, Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, sees the state "delivering a mobility solution that prioritizes equity, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and enhances access to local businesses and services for residents in these environmental justice communities." 

The comparison between the construction of the Mystic River Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge and the replacement of the Long Island bridge is rather thin.  The two cities involved with the first project, Everett and Somerville, are totally in favor of it, whereas the cities involved with the second project, Boston and Quincy, are on opposite sides.

Two points I'd like to stick in at the end:

The state collects taxes from the Encore casino equal to 25 percent of the casino's gross receipts.  That does not automatically entitle the casino to reap the benefits of a state-funded infrastructure project, but it allows the casino and its supporters to argue the bridge is worthy of public investment.  Developers and businesses argue from weaker vantages all the time.

The Encore casino itself is private property but the grounds around it, and (most attractively) the waterfront portions of it, are open at no fee or obligation to the public.  Wynn Resorts created a new waterfront park when it reclaimed and rehabilitated a shoreline and riverbed dangerously contaminated during the decades a chemical factory operated on the site.  It is a beautiful public amenity. 





This Moment in Corruption: The Case of the Larcenous Postal Supervisor

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Federal authorities have made known the story of a longtime U.S. Postal Service employee who developed something on the side in the cocaine trade.

The Office of Acting U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Nathaniel R. Mendell announced Oct. 22 that Shawn M. Herron, 44, a resident of Whitman, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and one count of theft of mail by a postal employee.

A press release from Mendell's office states that Herron has been employed with the Postal Service since 2005 and has served as Supervisor of Customer Service at the Canton Post Office and, more recently, as Manager of Customer Services at the Fall River Post Office (FPO).

"Herron tracked packages he suspected of containing narcotics," the release says, "and, rather than dealing with them appropriately, opened them and stole the contents.  Specifically, Herron profiled priority parcels from Puerto Rico and West Coast states, as well as parcels flagged by law enforcement as potentially containing illegal narcotics, and then removed them from the mail stream."

The release continues, "Herron tracked the suspected parcels through Postal Service databases and monitored their arrival at the FPO.  After their arrival, Herron located the parcels and brought them to his personal office space, where he stole the narcotics for distribution."

Herron is looking at some serious punishment.

The distribution charge provides for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $500,000.

The theft of mail charge carries a prison sentence of up to five years, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.


COVID Recovery Bill Notable for Its Broad Scope and Slow Motion

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

SECOND OF TWO PARTS 

On June 28, Governor Charlie Baker submitted to the legislature An Act Relative to Immediate COVID Recovery Needs, saying he wanted to use $2.915 billion of direct federal aid to address "urgent hardships and challenges" facing those hit hard by the pandemic, including "communities of color and low-wage workers."

Line Item 1599-2032 in this bill, now designated House Bill 3922, calls for $400 million in grants for municipal water and sewer infrastructure improvements.  It specifies that grants be used to remediate "combined sewer overflow into waterways, including projects to improve water quality in the Merrimack River."

Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) happen during heavy rainstorms in some communities with old underground pipes handling both rainwater run-off and sewage.  When run-off and sewage reach the pipes' capacity limits, water system operators direct the overflows to natural waterways; otherwise, sewage would  back up into homes, businesses and other structures, to devastating effect.

The problem is particularly acute along the Merrimack River, a drinking water source for communities like Lowell, Methuen, Andover, Tewksbury and Lawrence.  Hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage are diverted every year into the river because of CSOs.  

Baker's bill is a Godsend to those living along the Merrimack or in one of the communities that take their drinking water from it.  If it only cleaned up the Merrimack, it would be a monumental achievement...but there's so much more it would do. 

HB3922 proposes new spending in multiple areas, including the following:

  • $300 million to support expanded homeownership opportunities, focusing on first-time homebuyers who reside in municipalities disproportionately impacted by COVID.
  • $200 million to support housing production and related efforts that seek to help communities of color "build wealth by promoting homeownership among residents of disproportionately impacted municipalities."
  • $200 million to produce rental housing and provide increased housing options to workers and residents of disproportionately impacted municipalities.
  • $300 million to finance the statewide production of housing for veterans and senior citizens.
  • $250 million to support investments and regional collaboration aimed at invigorating downtowns across the state.
  • $100 million for downtown development that will specifically spur economic growth in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID.
  • $100 million for cultural facilities and tourism state-wide.
  • $240 million for job training programs addressing workforce skills gaps, thereby helping Massachusetts citizens secure the jobs that most need to be filled at this time.
  • $50 million for "fiscally stressed" hospitals in disproportionately impacted municipalities.  (The Governor pointed out, "These hospitals have taken extraordinary measures to support their communities during the pandemic, despite interruptions to their revenue streams.")
  • $175 million for addiction treatment and related behavioral health services.
  • $100 million "to close the digital divide and increase broadband internet access."
  • $100 million for marine port development.

The flood of federal dollars brought to Massachusetts by the pandemic is so large that, even if this $2.9 billion-dollar legislation were enacted and implemented as is, $2 billion in federal COVID relief would remain on the table for the legislature to spend as it sees fit.

Despite having the word "immediate" in its title, House 3922 seems to be inching along in the House.  Officially filed on June 30 and sent to House Ways & Means, a hearing on the bill was not held until September 15. No official steps have been taken on it since.

Great is the temptation to think the legislature may be slow-walking the bill because lawmakers are unhappy with the Baker-authored $2.9-billion/$2-billion split in control of the funds between the administration and legislature, respectively. In the filing letter accompanying the bill, Baker made it clear that he wanted to put "his" $2.9 billion to immediate use.  The Governor's patience is no doubt wearing thin.



COVID Recovery Bill Takes Aim at a Nasty, Old Problem

Friday, September 24, 2021

FIRST OF TWO PARTS

The big problem that Massachusetts has always had with combined sewer overflows got a whole lot worse this year because of the many heavy rainstorms we've had.

Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) occur mainly in older municipalities with antiquated sewage systems.  These communities have some old pipes that must do double-duty: carry both rainwater run-off and sewage.  It's a problem, for example, in Lynn, Gloucester, Lawrence, Lowell, Fitchburg, Holyoke and Springfield.

When there's lots of rain, wastewater system operators in these places have no choice but to mix untreated sewage with rainwater and send that noxious mix into natural bodies of water, such as rivers.  Otherwise, sewage would back up into homes and other buildings.

That means lots of human waste floating here and there after heavy rainstorms, endangering human health, as well as aquatic life and riverine ecosystems.  The dangers become particularly acute in cases like that of the Merrimack River, which has long served as the drinking water supply for several Merrimack Valley communities, such as Lowell, Methuen, Andover, Tewksbury and Lawrence.

From January through August of this year, there were 80 separate CSOs  into waterways within the service zone of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.  The MWRA estimates those discharges put a total of 594 million gallons of water-sewage mix into various waterways.  Compare that to the entirety of  2020, when there were 58 separate CSOs containing 259 million gallons in total, according to the MWRA.

The problem, so far this year, is 129% worse than in all of last year!  

We have one month (September) not yet accounted for and three months (October, November, December) to come when the problem could become extreme.

To gain a sharper perspective on the ugliness of this all, I did some calculations on how many acre-feet of water-sewage mix you can have with a CSO.  (An acre-foot describes an acre of land covered by a liquid to a uniform depth of one foot.)  I figured that the 594 million gallons of CSOs we've had from January through August of this year in the MWRA zone could have covered the entire 33 acres of Boston's gleaming new Seaport District to a depth of nearly two feet.

Fortunately, there are solutions on the horizon.

Governor Charlie Baker recently filed a bill that proposes to spend up to $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for the Commonwealth on upgrades to water and sewer infrastructure, with a special focus on lessening CSOs.

House Bill 3922, An Act Relative to Immediate COVID Recovery Needs, would make those improvements under the auspices of the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.  

On September 9, EOEEA Secretary Kathleen Theoharides provided remote testimony in favor of the bill to members of the House Ways & Means Committee.  At the time, she was sitting at a table set on the banks of the Merrimack River in Lawrence.

Pointing out that 130 million gallons of untreated sewage had flowed into the Merrimack over a span of two days recently during Tropical Storm Ida, Theoharides said, "The time to invest in adaptation is now.  It's not tomorrow or the next day."  She was referring to climate change adaptation.  

Scientists have conclusively determined that climate change caused by global warming is producing more frequent and more intense storms in certain parts of the globe.  Such storms are exacerbating the problem of CSOs in Massachusetts.

Water and sewer system upgrades are only one (relatively modest) part of the HB3922 cornucopia:  overall, the bill would spend $2.9 billion of federal funds on various and multiple projects throughout the state.

NEXT: A look at HB3922's many components.  To say this bill is a major spending plan is a gross understatement.  It is an historic piece of legislation.


Moulton Did the Unpopular but Correct Thing in Going to Afghanistan

Thursday, August 26, 2021

For most people in Massachusetts politics, the beating that Seth Moulton has been taking in the press and on the airwaves these last couple of days on account of his unauthorized trip to Afghanistan would be difficult, if not painful.  But for Moulton, I suspect, this is very close to being a cause for laughter.  

When you are a Marine who's been fired at repeatedly in combat, as he has, what's a bunch of insults from pundits and fellow members of the political class?

I don't think, for example, that Moulton went into a tailspin after an unnamed "senior official" in the Biden administration gave the following description of his Afghan adventure to the Washington Post: 

"It's as moronic as it is selfish.  They're taking seats away from Americans and at-risk Afghans -- while putting our diplomats and service members at greater risk -- so they can have a moment in front of the cameras." [Washington Post]

Ditto for the commentary from Jon Keller, who called the trip "an especially clueless publicity stunt."  [Keller@Large, CBS Boston]

Here's a recap for those unfamiliar with the story:  

Moulton, a Democrat representing the Sixth Massachusetts District in Congress, and Peter Meijer, a Republican representing Michigan's 3rd Congressional District, took a commercial flight from Washington to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, paying for the tickets themselves. They then flew to Kabul on a military aircraft, arriving Tuesday morning, Aug. 24.  Moulton and Meijer, both veterans of the Iraq war, said they were on a fact-finding visit, exercising their Congressional oversight rights upon the executive branch of government as President Biden commands a massive, ongoing evacuation of Americans and Afghanis from the capital of a country now in the hands of the Taliban. They remained at the airport in Kabul, the only place in the country still occupied by U.S. troops, for just under 24 hours before leaving on a military flight.  Moulton and Meijer emphasized that they left Kabul "on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence." 

This situation first struck me as a very bad idea.  Two Congressmen interviewing troops amidst the stress and danger of a final, forced retreat from a futile war, I thought, was like a city councilor going to an out-of-control, multiple-alarm fire to ask the firefighters, "Hey, how's it going, guys?"

Then I recalled the words I always got from the boss when I was learning how to be a newspaper reporter a very long time ago.  "You've got to get on the ground," he would say.

That meant there was no substitute, such as a phone call, for actually seeing a situation with your own eyes and asking questions face-to-face of the people directly involved.

So I give credit to Moulton and Meijer for having the guts and the determination to get on the ground in Afghanistan at this big moment in U.S. history.

And I'll take Seth Moulton, an officer and a gentleman, at his word when he says he learned a couple of things he would not have learned had he stayed home.  

One, Moulton said, he believed before his trip that the U.S. should extend its Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan because it would not be long enough to get everyone out who should be out.  Now, he believes we should stick to the Aug. 31 deadline because "there's no way we can get everyone out, even by Sept. 11 (Biden's initial, pre-fall-of-Afghanistan deadline).  So we need to have a working relationship with the Taliban after our departure.  And the only way to achieve that is to leave by Aug. 31." 

Second, Moulton said, "...one of the critical things we learned from our visit is that the task force prioritizing all special immigrant visa applications (by Afghans now desperate to leave the country) is overwhelmed by requests from members of Congress.  That's never  been communicated to us, but that is something that we are now communicating to our colleagues."  

[Source: Last two comments by Moulton appeared in yesterday's edition of The New York Times.]

ENDNOTE: In its first account of the Moulton-Meijer trip, The Washington Post reported that the two got from the United Arab Emirates to Afghanistan because they "figured out a way onto an empty military flight going into Kabul."  One has to wonder if the officer who OK'd that votes Republican.