Story Three: Investing in a New Energy Future

The Northeast Direct Pipeline and Kinder Morgan

If we seek proof that the world that we have created and inhabit is highly artificial, all we need to do is compare ourselves to the other species that survive in what we consider to be the “natural world.” Unlike those who thrive in nature, we do not come equipped with thick fur, sharp nails and knife-like canines that keep us warm in the snow and allow us to deftly climb trees and burrow deep underground. Whether you believe in evolution or the story of Adam and Eve, most people do not deny that our ancestors once survived in conditions much like the deer, bears, and squirrels that live in the wild world.

Artifice and the Harnessing of Energy

So, how did we end up living as we do now: driving cars that go 100 miles an hour; operating machines that can lift objects that no man could lift alone; living in homes that allow us to wear tee shirts indoors while snow storms rage outside? One skill we can credit for our technologically advanced, man-made way of life is our ability to harness and generate energy.

Michael Sarli, a lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Umass/Amherst and a former researcher for ExxonMobil, walks through a version of human history as seen through the lens of our quest for energy. Sarli describes that human beings have always tried to figure out efficient or convenient ways of cooking food and staying warm.

“We are always trying to find something better than burning every tree and blade of grass,”

he says. On Cape Cod, for example, the topsoil blew away because people were burning all the biomass as their primary energy source. Then we discovered coal, and we discovered that coal had its problems. Then we started using whale oil, until we realized that we were killing all the whales. Sarli describes that our first big shift came when, “we discovered we could get this goop out of the ground and it burned just as well as whale oil.”

It was in the context of the oil boom that the environmental movement emerged when Ida Tarbell wrote an exposé of the evils of the Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller. But, Sarli says,

“John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler didn’t wake up one day wondering how they could take advantage of the American public, the pushback comes when you try to find a new equilibrium.”

Achieving equilibrium between energy generation and consumption seems like a pipe dream as we incessantly seek more efficient or lucrative ways of producing this valuable resource that we depend upon. As a speaker at the Climate Colab conference at MIT, held on Thursday, Nov. 6 said, “it is important to remember that once oil was considered alternative energy.”

At its crux, our energy system is defined by the interplay between the way human beings act with each other and the natural environment, the way we think we want to live, and the actions we take to achieve that lifestyle. We will find ways to use the resources at our disposal until we decide to change our behavior, for one reason or another.

The general reaction from the local public to the Kinder Morgan pipeline is a resounding “NO.” Massachusetts is the most energy-efficient state in the union, and residents are not excited about a future with additional natural gas infrastructure running through the state. Reasons citied by the grassroots movement include environmental degradation, human health and the problematic process of natural gas extraction and use. These are all good reasons, reasons that force us to ask: Why it is the pipeline being proposed at all?

A Look at the Energy System

To answer this question, we must expand our view and take a broader look at the energy system. For example, a logical reason that the pipeline is a proposed solution to our “energy problem” is because the U.S. is the global leader in energy production. Bloomberg reported in July that the U.S. became the world’s largest natural gas producer in 2010 and that “the U.S. will remain the world’s biggest oil producer this year after overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia as extraction of energy from shale rock spurs the nation’s economic recovery.” This is significant because it points to the fact that the strength of our economy and our national GPD is connected to our energy system.

Additionally, the U.S. success in the energy sector is something that, on the national level, Americans are proud of. After the Nov. 4 election results were reported, National Public Radio quoted President Obama responding to the results and the democratic defeat. The President noted that while a debate over Canadian oil has been raging, we’ve seen some of the biggest increases in production of American oil and natural gas, “America’s energy sector is booming, including the clean energy industry.”

We Have Invested in Fossil Fuels

So, what does this mean? It means that the U.S. energy system has had robust growth in one, dominant direction. As Eric Gonzales of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UMass said, “we have invested in fossil fuels.” And, what Gonzales means by this is that over time the American people evolved our ability to source, transport and process fossil fuels as a primary energy source. And now, when there is an energy problem, fossil fuels are the obvious solution.

It equally important to realize that we could have invested differently and it is within this realization that we can identify a problem with some of the principles of the local environmentalist movement, specifically when it comes to wind. The general argument against the pipeline is that it is not needed because Massachusetts can meet its energy needs through renewables like wind and hydro. And, while this point may be true in theory, a movement to invest in wind energy infrastructure in Massachusetts took place — and failed.

USA’s First Wind Energy Program

A little known fact about Umass/Amherst is that it has the oldest wind energy program in the U.S. The program was founded by Bill Heronemous in 1972 and is run by Jim Manwell today. Heronemous studied naval architecture and marine engineering at MIT and then moved to western Massachusetts, where he started the ocean engineering department, in the late 1960s. Over the next decades, Heronomous and his team went on to carve out the core principles and ideals of wind energy generation. Following in the footsteps of Heronomous, Manwell has championed the wind energy movement in this state. However, the movement has fallen flat due to the uprising of local resistance movements to wind turbines. Offshore projects in Cape Cod have been killed, as have proposals for turbines in Ashfield and Shelburne Falls and other towns in western Mass. Manwell says,

“I know that we could provide all of New England’s energy through offshore wind. I have faith in the technology, I have no faith in the political process.”

It is here, in the political process, where some of the principles of the environmentalist movement have missed the mark. Specifically, that when we fight against something, we are — perhaps inadvertently, but certainly — fighting for something else. When we fought against wind, we fought for fossil fuels. And now we are faced with imagining a future in which fossil fuels are running like a river beneath the fields and farms of our local community. And, if the pipeline passes, we will not be in a unique situation compared to other American citizens. There are more than two million miles of pipelines running through the U.S., meaning that there are many, many people who have pipelines running through their backyards. As Manwell plainly stated about the reality of our current situation,

“the people who bear the brunt of our energy system need to be 1. poor and 2. somewhere else.”

If we want to truly want to invest in changing our energy system, instead of fighting to construct the pipeline in someone else’s backyard this may be our chance to fight for real change in the energy system. Peter Shattuck of the Acadia Center and Environment Northeast is working to explore supply side alternatives. He explains that although the energy system that serves the six states of New England is linked, Massachusetts is a key state as it is both one of the largest purchasers of electricity and it has yet to put legislation in place that will directly affect the future of New England’s energy infrastructure.

Additionally, the local grassroots movement against the pipeline has generated a great deal of momentum. During the month of July, activists held the Rolling March walk in which people walked the pipeline’s path through the state in an act of civic protest. The walked ended in Boston with five local activists meeting with Governor Patrick to request that the low-demand energy scenario — the only scenario not explored in the original Black & Veatch study that recommended the pipeline — be explored. Patrick agreed to support an additional study.

Massachusetts’s Department of Energy Resources (DOER) commissioned Synapse Energy Economics to execute the low-demand study in early October. The final results are due Dec. 23. Shattuck explains that the low-demand scenario will explore alternative solutions to address energy needs such as, “weatherizing old homes, and thinking through how many more renewables can we buy, what could be the mix of wind and hydro.” Shattuck went on to say that citizens need to be advocating for energy efficiency, giving equal measure to things that can help us avoid increasing infrastructure. Through our recent history, there has been a hierarchy in ideology and moral values between the meaning of “progress,” “growth” and “prosperity” when it comes to energy.

*this series is based on research about the Northeast Energy Direct Project. While the research was executed in 2014, the project to build the NED pipeline is still underway in the state of Massachusetts, and beyond. More information about the research process, read this:

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