BOSTON — The natural gas industry is sparring with environmentalists and others over whether demand for the fossil fuel is being exaggerated to boost support for a 400-mile natural gas pipeline across northeast Massachusetts, including part of the Merrimack Valley.
Industry officials have long argued that New England's electricity market is strained, in part, by a lack of transmission lines to bring gas to power plants, many of which have shifted from coal burning in recent years.
A lack of pipeline capacity has led to higher energy bills, they argue, even as wholesale prices for natural gas have dropped nationally.
Environmentalists, however, say demand for natural gas in Massachusetts is over stated. They want incoming Gov. Charlie Baker to pursue solar, wind and other renewable power sources.
The debate has intensified in recent weeks as both sides await a much-delayed environmental study, commissioned by outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick, to estimate the state's natural gas need.
Preliminary findings last month suggest the state faces a shortfall of 600 million to 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas on peak winter days. By 2030, that deficit will grow to 1.2 billion to 2.2 billion cubic feet per day.
The early report suggests enough demand to require additional natural gas lines to supply power plants.
But state officials put the brakes on releasing a final report by Synapse Energy Economics, a private consulting firm, following an outcry from environmental groups. Some cite errors and omissions in the data and calculations, tipping the results in favor of the industry.
“It’s become a report about how much gas is needed, rather than whether it is needed,” said Rosemary Wessel, founder of a Western Massachusetts group that opposes the pipeline. “The results were totally skewed.”
Wessel and others said the Synapse study built conclusions on misleading data and overestimated the costs to consumers for switching to solar, wind and other renewables.
“The Department of Energy has stacked the deck with a study designed to justify the Patrick Administration’s attempts to build public support and financing for natural gas pipeline development and large-scale Canadian hydropower imports,” said Greg Cunningham, interim director of the clean energy and climate change program at the Conservation Law Foundation, in a statement.
Mary-Leah Assad, a spokeswoman for the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, couldn’t say when the final study will be released but acknowledged errors that need to be corrected.
She said the preliminary findings suggest that the state needs more natural gas to meet its energy demands while acknowledging the need for renewables such as solar, hydropower and wind.
“The state continues to be engaged in discussions with the other New England states about our regional energy infrastructure needs, and this information will help to inform those conversations going forward,” she said.
Texas-based Kinder Morgan has proposed a $5 billion natural gas pipeline bringing "fracked" Marcellus Shale gas up from Pennsylvania.
Facing public opposition, the company revised its plans to route the pipeline along existing natural gas lines and other utility rights-of-way to minimize the impact on parks, wetlands and conservation land.
Industry officials say the state's energy needs won't be filled entirely by renewable sources. They say the state's demands can only be met by building two pipelines with a combined capacity of 2 billion cubic feet per day, even more that what the Kinder Morgan pipeline would fill.
“Even though it relied on dubious assumptions that biased the analysis against gas, the report clearly established that Massachusetts needs to significantly increase gas pipeline capacity,” said Anthony Buxton, a spokesman for the Coalition to Lower Energy Costs, an industry group that backs the Kinder Morgan project. "The enemy here is expensive and environmentally harmful oil, not natural gas."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at email@example.com