Attorney General Maura Healey made headlines last month when she announced a lawsuit against one of the country’s largest energy producers, Exxon Mobil. The company, she alleges, deceived consumers and investors for years by hiding the impact of its products on the environment.
The allegations may sound familiar. Since 2016, Healey and a coalition of progressive attorneys general from across the country have waged an expensive legal campaign fueled by an intertwined, complicated web of climate activists, politicians and academics. All of these forces seek the same outcome — to persuade the public, by any means, that “Big Oil” is an enemy who must pay for its part in climate change.
But a novel lawsuit against an energy company won’t address the state’s energy supply issues. The attorney general’s misguided efforts, which come at great expense to taxpayers, will not yield a cleaner or lower cost energy future for the state’s economy and competitiveness.
At best, the effort might result in a financial award to the state’s coffers, but a far more likely outcome is the state becoming bogged down in years of costly litigation. As happened in mid-2018, after several years of litigation, a federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a similar suit, stating that the courts were not the proper place to deal with such global issues as climate change.
Like many northeastern states, Massachusetts depends on oil and gas to meet its needs and keep the lights on 24/7.
Unfortunately, many state lawmakers have rejected rational energy policies in recent years that would deliver critical energy infrastructure for reliable, affordable natural gas supplies — particularly during frigid weather when both heating customers and electricity users demand more gas — that existing pipelines serving the region are not designed to handle.
Residents may be quick to remember the brutal extended cold snap that stormed through the state last winter. Months before this extreme weather hit, Attorney General Healey blocked a multi-million pipeline project, stating with confidence the commonwealth is “highly unlikely” to experience electric reliability issues.
During this cold snap, a large and critically located electricity generator in Everett was forced to use high cost imported LNG, including a cargo of Russian gas even though the company that produced the fuel was under U.S. economic sanctions. Across New England, enormous heating demand meant other power plants were precluded from accessing natural gas. A regional natural gas shortage resulted in substantially higher consumer electricity bills, even with abundant supplies available from new prolific gas fields in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Politically motivated anti-fossil fuel policies in neighboring New York further compounded gas supply issues confronting the New England energy market.
In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration vetoed regulatory approvals for a new pipeline that promised ready access to available gas markets for upstate New York and New England. This May, Cuomo blocked downstate pipeline expansions, which forced New York City gas utilities to reject new gas customers.
Energy realists recognize that prudent natural gas production offers the lowest cost and most efficient fuel to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal.
Nevertheless, politicians across the world continue to promote irrational policies that cannot work in the real world. In Canada, the prime minister recently vowed the country would be a “net zero” emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050 – even while acknowledging that the proposal relies on yet-to-be developed technology.
German politicians also promised new laws to eliminate all carbon emissions by 2040 but are now working behind the scenes to eliminate or diminish key elements from the rules because they are proving unattainable.
Healey’s taxpayer funded crusade against Exxon Mobil is but another factor in the state and region’s energy supply cost and reliability issues. Promising to eliminate fossil fuels just adds to the fuel supply uncertainties and will not help deliver more affordable energy.
Blaming a single energy company for climate change might offer wonderful talking points for state and local politicians, but it will not address, in any meaningful way, the perceived impacts of carbon dioxide emissions on climate change and only lead to higher consumer costs, particularly for those who can least afford it.
So long as Massachusetts’ elected officials pursue an unrealistic, “zero tolerance” approach and continue to oppose natural gas infrastructure expansions, our environment will face greater supply risks with our consumers and businesses facing ever-higher energy costs.
Geoffrey K. Mitchell, principal of Brant Energy, is a former member of the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board.