There has been fierce opposition across Massachusetts to the natural gas pipeline projects of Spectra Energy — residents, campaigners, and politicians have been lining up to oppose the pipelines that will run across the state.
But none of this opposition has swayed the state's governor, Charlie Baker, who has consistently backed Spectra's plans.
However, DeSmog can reveal a cozy relationship between Baker and a lobbying company that has been working to push Spectra's plans through. Those ties run from publicly declared “love” between one lobbyist and Baker to a loaning of office space.
Behind Spectra's Lobbyists, ML Strategies
Late last year, the governor’s political campaign committee used the services of the law firm Mintz Levin, whose lobbying arm ML Strategies represents Spectra in the state.
An expenditures disclosure by the committee includes a payment from last September to the Boston-based firm Mintz Levin for “legal consulting.”
ML Strategies has been lobbying for Spectra Energy since 2015, as the pipeline company began pushing for the approval of two of its projects in the state, Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast.
Both projects are planned upgrades to its Algonquin Gas Pipeline carrying fracked gas from Pennsylvania, through New York, and into New England and Canada.
While Spectra has received approval for Atlantic Bridge by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it is still waiting on a final permit decision by Massachusetts regulators under the authority of the Baker administration.
Caption: From Governor Charlie Baker’s campaign committee disclosures, showing payment to Mintz Levin
DeSmog asked Governor Baker’s office about the payment to Mintz Levin but a spokesperson declined to comment and, instead, referred DeSmog to the Massachusetts Republican Party.
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts GOP did not respond to DeSmog’s several invitations for comment. Mintz Levin also failed to respond to questions.
A Cozy Relationship with Spectra Lobbyist Firm
Charlie Baker also has close ties with senior figures at ML Strategies. One of the firm’s lobbyists is Bill Weld, who in 2016 ran as the vice-presidential nominee of libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Weld, himself a former governor of Massachusetts, was Baker’s previous boss and political mentor. Baker served as the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services under Weld in the mid-1990s. And the two have remained close.
In one of his 2014 gubernatorial campaign videos, Baker is seen walking alongside Weld. When asked last year if he’ll be voting for the libertarian ticket, Baker reportedly said of Weld “I love the man, OK? I really do.”
The chair of ML Strategies, lobbyist Stephen Tocco, was Baker’s former colleague in Weld’s administration. Tocco, who served as Weld’s special assistant and close advisor, reportedly still maintains a close relationship with Baker.
Mark Robinson, another attorney at Mintz Levin, served as a counselor for Baker’s transition committee as he took the governor’s office in 2015. Previously, Robinson was former Governor Weld’s chief of staff.
The Baker committee’s historical expenditure disclosures also show that since 2013, Baker rented Mintz Levin’s office space in downtown Boston a total of three times. In May 2015 ML Strategies held a fundraiser for Baker, raising close to $30,000.
Caption: “Governor’s Charlie Baker renting space from Mintz Levin, 2013-2015. From the Baker Committee expenditure disclosures.
DeSmog asked Governor Baker’s office whether his close ties to ML Strategies has played any role in his support for Spectra’s project. Again, a spokesperson for the governor declined to comment, referring DeSmog to the Massachusetts Republican Party. A party spokesperson did not comment.
Baker Deflects Question Over Weymouth Compressor Station
From his earliest days as governor, Baker has shown support for Spectra’s upgrade projects.
Only a month after taking office, Baker told the New England Council, a business, academic, and public policy group with a lobbying arm in Washington, D.C., that he would like to see the expansion of the existing pipeline system’s capacity. Spectra Energy is a dues-paying member of the New England Council. Four months after Baker’s declaration, Spectra hired ML Strategies to lobby on its behalf in Massachusetts.
According to lobbying disclosures, ML Strategies was hired to “monitor legislation on energy and environmental legislative proposals and the potential impact on Spectra Energy’s existing operations.”
A few months later, Bill Weld already called the gas projects “an easy sell.” Between 2015 and 2016 ML Strategies was Spectra’s highest-paid lobbyist, receiving more than $380,000 from the energy company.
Yet despite all this, constituents in the state have stepped up their efforts to try to convince Baker to oppose the Spectra projects. A major hotspot surrounds the planned construction of a compressor station in the town of Weymouth as part of the Atlantic Bridge project.
Residents fear that the station, which is planned to be built in close proximity to private homes, will seriously threaten their health and the environment. They cite the area’s already disproportionate industrial activity as an unfair burden making the local population especially vulnerable to added pollution.
During a radio interview last week, a Weymouth resident asked Baker why he supports Atlantic Bridge. This time, Baker did not demonstrate outright support for the project, claiming instead his administration is powerless to deny it since the decision ultimately rests at the hands of the federal government. “I’ve talked with some of the folks at the federal level about this, but that’s really where these decisions get made, they don’t get made at the state level,” Baker said.
Yet this is inaccurate. Although FERC has approved Atlantic Bridge, the Weymouth compressor station still requires the authorization of the Office of Coastal Zone Management, which in Massachusetts is under the Baker administration.
Alice Arena, a leading activist in the group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS), said in response that Baker can still use his influence to deny that permit. “While much of the power rests with the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC),” Arena says, “the states have the ability to deny permitting that must be given in order for the project to go forward.”
To exert influence on Baker, Weymouth residents personally delivered in early February over a thousand written postcards and a petition to Baker’s office, urging him to intervene on their behalf to reject the project.
An assistant for Baker, who told the residents the governor was not in his office, took the cards and petition and promised to deliver them to him. Baker claimed in last week’s radio interview that he never received those.
More Opposition to Atlantic Bridge
Meanwhile, on Monday this week a coalition of organizations have separately petitioned FERC for a rehearing on its approval of Atlantic Bridge.
In both these motions, DeSmog’s revelations of an apparent conflict on interest in the environmental assessment of the project figured prominently.
As previously reported, the third-party contractor assisting FERC in the assessment, NRG, was working at the time for Spectra on its proposed PennEast Pipeline, which will connect to the Algonquin Pipeline.
This suggests that NRG had an interest in the approval of Atlantic Bridge. DeSmog has found that NRG did not disclose its work on PennEast when hired by FERC to review Atlantic Bridge. Yet FERC went ahead and approved Atlantic Bridge on January 25 this year, a day before the resignation of its chair, Norman Bay, which left the commission without a quorum to approve further projects.
Karina Wilkinson, Massachusetts Local Coordinator for Food & Water Watch, one of the intervening organizations petitioning FERC for a rehearing, said on Monday: “In light of the serious health, safety, and environmental concerns that FERC failed to address before approving this unnecessary project, the Commission must reconsider their approval.
“State agencies are not expected to complete their reviews before August and may deny the necessary permits, so FERC’s hasty action just before Commissioner Bay’s resignation is irresponsible and wrong on its face.”
Main image: A still image from the gubernatorial campaign video showing Charlie Baker, right, with lobbyist Bill Weld.