Massachusetts Hired Energy Industry Execs to 'Independently' Review State’s Gas System

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Gas marker in Cambridge, Massachusetts

A private contractor employed by the state of Massachusetts to conduct a statewide safety review of its gas distribution companies hired gas industry executives for the project, documents obtained by DeSmog show. They include two former executives of National Grid —  one of the companies under review — and Enbridge, a main supplier of gas in the state.

One of the former National Grid executives was removed from the review once the state learned a family member of his currently works for the company. 

News of the hires has activists, who have been pushing the state to address its aging and leaking gas system, on edge. “We're concerned that this assessment is led by a consultant that not only depends on the gas industry for its business, but also included two former National Grid executives and a former Enbridge executive,” said Debbie New of the group Mothers Out Front. 

New Concerns Over Bias

The damage done to a home in North Andover, Massachusetts due to a gas explosion on September 13, 2018.
The damage done to a home in North Andover, Massachusetts due to a gas explosion on September 13, 2018. Credit: Original photo by WhoisjohngaltCC BY-SA 4.0

Following last September’s deadly gas explosions in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration announced an “independent” review of the state’s seven gas distribution companies. Those incidents, which happened due to overpressurization in Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ pipeline system, killed 18-year old Leonel Rondon, injured scores more, and destroyed numerous homes.

As DeSmog previously reported, to carry out the safety review the state contracted Dynamic Risk Assessment Systems Inc., a Canadian consulting firm which often works for the oil and gas industry.

Now, new documents obtained by DeSmog raise further questions about the independence of the review.

According to the Massachusetts contract with Dynamic Risk, the firm originally hired Jim Howe, a former National Grid executive, to sit on its Independent Review Panel, a body of experts which will lead the safety review.

Howe, who is currently a senior director at Pacific Gas & Electric Company, left National Grid in 2011 following more than 30 years with the company.

Yet according to an official at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU), the DPU asked Dynamic Risk to remove Howe from the review once it learned that one of his family members currently works for National Grid. While Dynamic Risk did disclose Howe’s former employment with National Grid in the contract it signed with the DPU, the contractor did not include his ongoing family connection to the company.   

Also listed as a subcontractor Dynamic Risk may use in the review is Michael Courtien, a former vice president for customer meter services and dispatching at National Grid who left the company in 2014. Courtien now works for the American Gas Association, the natural gas industry lobbying and trade group, which is behind a front group pushing the Atlantic Coast pipeline

Additionally, the contract lists potential subcontractor Terri Larson, a communications and community engagement consultant, who worked for Enbridge until 2017. Though Enbridge is not considered a distribution company in Massachusetts, its Algonquin pipeline feeds many of the state’s gas companies.

In the contract, Dynamic Risk denied Howe and Courtien’s past employment with National Grid amounts to a conflict of interest. “Given the amount of time that has passed since Mr. Howe and Mr. Courtien left the employment of National Grid, we believe these past-employments do not rise to creating a current conflict of interest,” the firm wrote.

State Gave Contractor High Marks for Lack of Conflicts

Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which signed the contract from the state’s side, seemed to agree with Dynamic Risk’s position. DPU evaluators, who scored the various bidders for the safety review, gave Dynamic Risk high scores for independence and lack of conflicts.  

Dynamic Risks refers requests for comment on the project to the Massachusetts DPU, citing its contractual obligations. The DPU reiterated that Dynamic Risk has been hired to conduct an independent statewide examination of the safety of the natural gas distribution system and the operational and maintenance functions of natural gas companies in the state.

The review is intended to assess, out of an abundance of caution, the current safety of pipeline infrastructure throughout the Commonwealth,” said a DPU official.

The DPU adds that Michael Courtien is not a part of the review’s Independent Review Panel, but is one of more than 10 people that may provide technical support to the panel, which will produce the report.

Working for the Public’s Interest

Debbie New of Mothers Out Front still holds hope the review will reflect the public’s interest. “There's an opportunity now for our DPU that hired them — and that's on the Independent Review Panel to demonstrate — that they're working for the public, not the utilities, by giving us a comprehensive, transparent report.”

Her organization has been working with National Grid on mechanisms to identify, report, and fix large gas leaks throughout the state.

We’re thus hoping for a statewide report that adds to what we already know about how problematic the gas system is,” added New, “and makes strong recommendations for how gas companies and our DPU can protect our homes and neighborhoods as we move quickly to safer, healthier renewable energy.”  

Main image: Gas marker in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Credit: Andrew MaloneCC BY 2.0

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