By Beth Treffeisen
The Public Improvements Commission (PIC) approved the construction of a 4,100-foot natural gas main in the Back Bay at a hearing on Dec. 7, despite outrage amongst residents who claim National Grid is skirting a public process.
The main will connect to the existing National Grid main at the intersection of Berkeley and Cortes streets, and was engineered to meet the gas needs of several new developments, including One Dalton, and the growing demand for gas in the Back Bay.
The PIC approved the permit based on their purview of an engineering, changes made to the public right-of-way and the impact it has on other projects who have grants of location that have already been established through the Commission. At the hearing, about 40 people against the project showed up in protest and to speak against the project.
“I deeply appreciate the passion and emphasis each one [of the testimonies] brought,” said Chairman Chris Osgood. “They reflect the depth you care about the city and the globe and the future in front of us. I understand the Mayor is pushing forward on a carbon free Boston plan and we need to continue the long-term look.”
“But the purview of the PIC is an engineering decision around the right of way and impact it would have on other folks who have grants of vocation through PIC process…that’s why we entertain approval.”
Osgood emphasized that community conversations need to continue in the upcoming scheduled January meetings. In addition, he asked that National Grid set up a Web site that has regular information, status and any impacts that it might have in the Back Bay.
This matter was first brought in front of the PIC on Oct 5, which got continued twice on Nov. 2 and Nov. 16, before reaching the hearing on Dec. 7.
The natural gas pipeline-extension will serve the currently under-construction luxury residential and hotel tower that will rise to 691 feet near the Prudential Center. The current infrastructure in place could not support the pressure needed to use natural gas in new building.
After discussions with the developers Carpenter & Company, National Grid agreed to put in a natural gas extension with their financial support.
This is similar to if a homeowners wanted to get natural gas supplied to their house, but their street didn’t have the necessary piping. The homeowners would have to finance the construction of the new pipeline from the source to their home.
“Since this is primarily a growth investment, new customers will fund the portion of the investment that is attributed to providing them service through increased gas delivery revenues or capital contributions,” said Robert Kievera, spokesperson for National Grid in a statement. “We expect that over time, growth in new connections to this main and additional gas consumption will contribute toward funding this investment.”
In a statement from National Grid, the intermediate pressure system is also important to their efforts to provide natural gas to the existing 260,000 natural gas customers in Boston.
They noted that community meetings and project discussions have occurred with city agencies, as well as key stakeholders and community groups, although community members stated the few public meetings held were not sufficient.
At the hearing residents cited that it would be a sham to approve something before the public process is finished.
Yissel Guerrero, the mayor’s Back Bay neighborhood liaison, said that National Grid has met with the Back Bay Neighborhood Association (NABB) and the St. Botolph Neighborhood Association.
“On behalf of the Mayor’s Office and Neighborhood Services at this moment, we would like to stand in support of the PIC pipeline in regards to the fact that National Grid has fulfilled the Mayor’s Office requirement to meet with the community,” said Guerrero on behalf of Mayor Martin Walsh.
She urged that National Grid continue the public process with the community.
In addition, community members said that the attorney general’s office has asked a number of questions related to a contract National Grid has with One Dalton, including contribution to the capital costs of the new pipeline and a 20-year contract for the supply of natural gas to that building.
This concerned residents, because this long-term contract does not indicate any intent to eventually transition to a lower use of fossil fuels by that date.
“In this situation, one such alternative would be all-electric buildings, provided the electricity supplied is increasingly generated from renewable sources,” wrote Martyn Roetter, chair of NABB. “Related questions are, if we do not start now to stop using natural gas in new buildings, then when will this changeover come? Will it be at future date when it will have become impossible to reach the goal of a net carbon-zero Boston in time?”
Roetter asked the PIC, to no avail, to delay the decision of the pipeline, reflecting the spirit and intention of the City Council’s resolution on this matter until it has been possible to evaluate the total costs and consequences of alternative solutions.
David Hewett, a principal at Epsilon Associates, an environmental engineering and consulting firm, said that in his experience of working with the Article 80 process and Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) the last 15 years here in the city, is that most of the development projects rely on natural gas to be approved by city and state agencies of being capable of LEED certification.
“To be LEED certifiable a great number of project need to rely on natural gas because, right now, in the present, to rely on an all electric building for heating and domestic hot water is not as efficient and in fact creates more greenhouse gas than one that uses natural gas,” said Hewett.
Hewett said the new developments that are going through the Boston Planning and Development Agency, and others through the state, are being encouraged to follow their greenhouse policy guideline that encourages developers to use natural gas; otherwise, they won’t get a permit.
“It would be like approving projects and then yanking the rug out from under them,” said Hewett.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president and executive director of the Back Bay Association, agreed with Hewett, saying that since 2005 there has been an extensive planning process along Stuart Street that identified the area as underserved for natural gas.
“It’s not convenient and people may not like that all of this underlying development has been planned for, but there is zoning that has been put in place and one of the realities of life is that in an old city like Boston we must keep up with the underlying infrastructure that supports the important development that we are currently undergoing,” said Mainzer-Cohen.
She continued, “The role of PIC is not to put thumbs up or thumbs down whether or not these pipeline should happen, and it’s really an extension of an existing service to other parts of the city that would be underserved without it. If this extension did not happen the other areas around Back Bay including the Architectural District would have less service.”
National Grid is the local distribution natural gas for the City of Boston. It serves over 200,000 customers in and around every neighborhood except for Hyde Park.
Ania Camargo, co-chair of Boston Clean Energy Coalition, said she followed the route of the new pipeline with Bob Ackley of Gas Safety Inc., and found four gas leaks including one that was Grade 1, which means it is explosive and needs to be fixed within 24 hours.
The PIC approved the permit with the condition that National Grid fixes the leaks along the route.
The construction schedule is expected to begin as early as January 2018 with an eight to 15-month construction window.
When asked for why the project could not be delayed, Caroll said, “The current building that is being served is being constructed…if we continued delay that building will be up with no service.”
National Grid will be meeting with members of the community on Jan. 16, at Rabb Hall at the Boston Public Library from 6 – 7:30 p.m.