Drama Over Energy Bill on Beacon Hill

salem harborPhoto by TheCLF on Flickr


Largely due to one provision he has lobbied for within the bill “An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth,” Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, has managed to draw a wide range of opposition—from the business community to environmental groups—and the standoff threatens to stall the larger energy bill in the State House, which has by Tuesday night to pass major legislation.

You may have been introduced to this debate while flipping through the Globe or Herald the other week and coming across an ad that read in bold: “Don’t let an unfair deal cost Massachusetts families and businesses billions of dollars over the next 15 years.” The New England Power Generators Association (NEPGA) ran the ad, helping draw attention to the legislation.

So what’s the clause that’s creating such a ruckus on Beacon Hill? It’s called Section 42, and its main purpose is to help phase the three remaining coal power plants in Massachusetts into natural gas plants. Sounds like a decent enough idea, right? Not so fast. Coal is a four-letter word among even the mildly environmentally conscious, but the provisions of the section have raised red flags.

The way the rest of the state will aid with the plant conversions is by forcing power distribution companies (like the folks at NEPGA, and therefore anyone who pays electric bills) to buy power from these plants for at least the next 15 years. This government-mandated deal has NEPGA and other business groups crying foul at the unfair advantage it would offer the new plants and pointing out that limiting competition would raise prices for customers.

Section 42 has another opponent in the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, which objects to replacing coal with natural gas—also a fossil fuel—and believes that a guaranteed deal to the converted plants would undermine the green energy initiatives already in place in Massachusetts. “Section 42 of the pending energy bill is a significant step backwards by creating sweetheart deals for fossil fuel at the expense of consumers,” Massachusetts director James McCaffrey said in a press release.

But before anyone demonizes Keenan for pushing the unpopular section, let’s actually recognize him for doing his exact job description—representing Salem. Keenan’s motivation for the provision is the coal plant, Salem Harbor Station, which is slated to close in 2014, and prompted Keenan to try to recruit the state’s help in replacing those jobs and tax dollars in his city. Keenan told the Salem Gazette that the power plant has “been the number one issue in my community for a decade and a half.”

And while Keenan was doing his job, let’s be thankful that groups like NEPGA and the Sierra Club were doing theirs, too, by stepping up in the interest of green energy and consumer protection in Massachusetts.

Section 42 has been absent from Senate versions of the bill, and a conference committee has been working to decide its fate recently. Look for news on the outcome of bill after tomorrow night’s deadline.