Save the Bay’s Jonathan Stone on National Grid, LNG and environmental activism

Save the Bay is an environmental group here in Rhode Island that is laser-focused on Narragansett Bay and its watershed. As a result, the organization has not taken a stand on some environmental issues, like energy policy, to the consternation of some activists who want the group to expand their mission. In a conversation I was privy to, people were

Rhode Island News: Save the Bay’s Jonathan Stone on National Grid, LNG and environmental activism

August 15, 2017, 6:53 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Save the Bay is an environmental group here in Rhode Island that is laser-focused on Narragansett Bay and its watershed. As a result, the organization has not taken a stand on some environmental issues, like energy policy, to the consternation of some activists who want the group to expand their mission. In a conversation I was privy to, people were discussing Save the Bay in relation to National Grid‘s proposed liquefaction facility, to be built on Field’s Point in the Port of Providence not too far from Save the Bay’s offices.

On one side, a woman was insisting that Save the Bay is opposed to the liquefaction facility because the group opposes natural gas. On the other side someone countered that Save the Bay has no position of the proposed facility because it will only affect poor people.

In an attempt to get to the core of the organization’s policies and positions on the liquefaction facility and other related energy projects, I reached out to Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay. Stone was very patient with me and generous with his time answering my tough and perhaps even unfair questions, for which I am grateful.

Has Save the Bay been silent on the issue of National Grid’s liquefaction proposal?

Stone: We have expressed a number of concerns about the project and have participated in a number of meetings and discussions with regulators and National Grid about the project. We’ve been doing that for about 18 months. We’ve filed comments with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) on the project about 6 or 7 months ago.”

[Save the Bay’s most recent statement on the proposed liquefaction facility stated, “Based on the information we have today, we have concluded that the liquefaction facility will not have a detrimental impact on water quality. As with every such proposal, we will continue to review permits and monitor the project as appropriate.”]

There’s a perception out there that Save the Bay is against natural gas because of the work the group did against the Hess Terminal in 2007 and earlier. People have been surprised that Save the Bay has not been as vocal about National Grid’s planned liquefaction facility as they have been in the past about natural gas infrastructure.

Stone: Our position was never that we are opposed to natural gas. Our position was that we are opposed to a terminal in the middle of Narragansett Bay that would be an import facility for natural gas. And our opposition was based on the environmental impacts of the terminal proposal and the public access impacts of the transits of the vessels that would have resupplied the terminal.

We’ve never staked out a position that we are against natural gas. We don’t have a position that we are against natural gas.

It sounds like there may be a misperception that our opposition to the LNG terminal was based on an opposition to a fuel. It was not based on opposition to a fuel it was based on impacts to Narragansett Bay.

When I hear people say that Save the Bay’s opposition to the Hess Facility was based on the effect the facility would have on rich people with sailboats but that Save the Bay is silent when the issue is the health effects on poor people in Washington Park, what should I say?

Stone: Well, let me just put it this way. We have been working for more than three decades to clean up the Providence River, and we have been doggedly pursuing pollution issues, both air quality and water quality issues related to the Providence River for three decades. That is the record. That is what we have done for so many years.

You’re probably aware that we’ve been pushing on some of the scrap yards that have been operating on the waterfront both on water quality issues and air quality issues. One in particular has been an egregious violator.

After our advocacy the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office intervened and is in court with the company to enforce clean water act regulations regarding water quality and there have been air quality issues in that case as well.

For anyone to say that we don’t care about the Providence River and the urban centers of the city are just not informed about the incredible amount of effort into advocacy around pollution issues for decades like water quality, waste water treatment, storm water, public access and industrial pollution like we see at the scrap metal yard on Allens Avenue.

Do you think Save the Bay has been a good community partner to the area around the Port where the have their headquarters?

Stone: I have met with folks at the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. I certainly appreciate their concerns about National Grid’s plan, particularly from the perspective of truck traffic.

We do care a lot about the environmental impacts of the plant, and we have, as I said, filed comments with CRMC, for example, on issues that principally relate to the Bay. That’s the lens through which we view most environmental issues.

What about the fact that National Grid donates to Save the Bay? Are you worried about the perception that Save the Bay might be seen as going easier on a funder?

Stone: Let me give you a few facts about that. National Grid has been a funder on and off, depending on various grant proposals and grant cycles, for 20 years. Our most recent grant is $10,000 for environmental education programs. We have a $3 million budget. It’s important to keep that fact in mind. It’s not like National Grid is our largest funder. They’re nothing like our largest funder. They are, for us, a very small funder.

It’s important to note that with every funder we make it very clear that if there’s any potential conflict of interest, that might not even be known, that we form our policy positions independent of funding. That’s been a cardinal rule of Save the Bay for 47 years. We have never modified a policy position based on money from a funder.

In the case here we’ve had funding from National Grid that long predated our position on this and long predated the project. The fact that we’ve gotten funding from them in no way influences our perspective on this project.”

What would you say to someone who says there’s an inherent conflict when an environmental group and a fossil fuel company collaborate?

Stone: I would say that National Grid is principally a distributor of energy. That’s what they do. They’re not a generator. They are not a fracking company. They do not explore for oil and gas. We have, for example, turned down funding from Shell Oil, from ExxonMobile. We have turned down funding from ScottsMiracle-Gro. They are a really good company but they sell a product that we have a really hard time with, lawn fertilizer.

So these are companies that one could argue whether they are good or bad but what I would say is that the basic business of the company in these three examples are businesses that we cannot support and condone as it relates to our mission.

What we are is an advocacy organization for the environmental health of Narragansett Bay.

National Grid’s primary goal in life is to distribute electricity. And they are the monopoly distributor of electricity in Rhode Island.

And gas, though. People see National Grid trying to increase the footprint of gas in our state as not being a good player, environmentally speaking.

Stone: Well, you can view it that way. I think various people have different perspectives on gas as a bridge fuel and I think now you’re getting into that whole argument of natural gas as a bridge fuel.

Our expertise lies in water quality and the environmental health of Narragansett Bay and its watershed. There are many other groups that work on energy policy issues. Conservation Law Foundation is excellent at energy policy work.

We work in partnerships that have expertise in other areas and we stick to our expertise.

Here’s another example: On the [proposed] Burrillville Power Plant we worked in partnership with Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), Rhode Island Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy in drafting a joint letter expressing our respective concerns.

Our concerns were principally focused on watershed health. And CLF, their concern has been primarily focused on the fossil fuel energy issue. Nature Conservancy and Audubon were principally concerned with the woodlands, forests and watersheds of Rhode Island.

So we each brought different perspectives and I think that adds strength to the concerns that we all collectively expressed about the Burrillville Power plant.

What would you say to a supporter who is surprised by your neutral stance on natural gas and the proposed liquefaction facility for the Port of Providence? Would you say send your money to other groups?

Stone: I would say that our work and our mission is principally focused on Narragansett Bay, the coast of Rhode Island and the watershed of Narragansett Bay. We’re not an energy advocacy firm. That’s not what we do. We’re not all things to all people.

We’re going to focus on those things that arena the center of the bull’s eye for our mission. Other group I hope do the same and the strength of the entire environmental movement is that you have various voices on various issues that bring expertise to various problems.

Our focus is our strength.

We have earned respect over many, many years for our work. Because we really do bring expertise to issues that revolve around the Bay.

I would encourage that person to support the Conservation Law Foundation when it comes to energy policy because they are really really good. They have great expertise in it.

The following section didn’t quite fit into the interview, but is interesting because Stone explains his understanding of what the liquifaction facility is and how it will work:

I think it’s important to state an obvious fact: This is not a new liquified natural gas storage facility. The facility’s been there for decades and I’m sure you know the nature of the project the company is proposing. It’s basically to increase and improve the utilization of the plant.

The liquified natural gas that is delivered to the plant today, to the storage tank, is delivered by truck in liquid form. What you have today are trucks that are loaded up in Everett, Massachusetts in Boston Harbor. The gas is trucked down here, the are off loaded in liquid form at the plant [in Providence] and then as conditions dictate, the company gasifies the gas and bleeds it into pipelines that feed local customers. I think their primary customer is the Manchester Street Power Station.

What the [proposed] liquefaction plant would do is reverse the flow. Instead of driving trucks through urban areas, through the middle of providence and the middle of Boston -trucks filled with liquified natural gas, that presents a health and safety hazard right there- What they want to do is bring in the gas from northwestern Rhode Island from the Connecticut Pipeline.

The gas is delivered in pipelines in gaseous form. So what they want to do is in “shoulder seasons” when there’s relatively low demand for gas, they want to bring gas in through the pipeline, liquify it, and store it in the tank.

And then when you get a heatwave or a cold snap you can bleed out that gas in either gas or liquid form – in a truck if it’s liquid form or into a pipeline if it’s gaseous form- and deliver that gas in that fashion.

So basically what they’re proposing is to reverse the flow of gas as it comes into the plant.

What’s relevant from our position is the environmental impacts associated with this specific project, given that there is already a liquified natural gas storage facility there.

One of the key concerns we’ve had and we’ve expressed this to the CRMC, which is one of the key regulars on this is the hazard associated with storm surges that from time to time do come up Providence River. We want to be sure that the design rules that are used to design the liquefaction plant and are used to protect the storage plant, reflect the most recent and up-to-date projections as relates to sea level rise and storm events. We are concerned that when and if this thing gets built, that it’s done safely to protect the city from the hazards associated with the liquefaction plant failing, like a pipe breaking, or the storage tank rupturing, associated with a storm surge.

We’ve also had concerns regarding regulations having to do with development along the coastline, especially water quality.

There are two water quality concerns. One is that during construction we want to make sure that water quality is protected and then there’s water quality once it’s constructed, during operation.

Those are things National Grid can accommodate if they design the liquefaction plant properly. We’re pushing hard to make sure those design considerations are thorough and are adequate to meet the potential environmental impact.