Defining “Public Ownership”: A Critique of Rep. Connolly’s Bill 3893, “An Act Facilitating Public Ownership of Public Utilities”

Beyond the extractive mode of production, little about the energy industry has been politicized or is under public scrutiny. The distribution of electricity and natural gas, separate from their production, is controlled by large Investor-Owned Utilities (IOUs) which act as monopolies in the areas they operate in. This special status has allowed these IOUs to operate for decades with impunity and little regard for human lives and the environment. In the last year, however, the extent of their incompetence and sheer negligence have been exposed across the nation. In Massachusetts, we have seen Columbia Gas’ negligence result in explosions in the Merrimack Valley, causing millions of dollars in damages; Eversource’s efforts to construct a redundant substation in an EJ community in East Boston; and National Grid’s abusive exploitation and intimidation of their workers. In this landscape, it is therefore vital for us to explore alternative models of energy distribution, one that is democratically controlled and can help us decarbonize, decommodify and decolonize energy production and distribution. 

To that end, Rep. Mike Connolly recently introduced House Bill 3893, “An Act Facilitating Public Ownership of Public Utilities” as the first step towards publicly-owned, democratically-controlled public utilities by 2026; this bill is currently assigned to  the committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy as of June 13, 2019. If passed, the bill will establish a task force composed of the House and Senate Chairs of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy and the Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, the Chair of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU), executives of environmental non-profit organizations (MA Public Interest Research Group, Environmental League of MA, Sierra Club MA and Better Future Project), and union representatives from International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Locals 103 (Boston), 223 (Brockton), 7 (Springfield) and 96 (Worcester), and United SteelWorkers Locals 12003 and 12012-04, and the chair of the board of the MA Municipal Wholesale Electric Company. The task force will conduct research on topics such as structure, performance, cost, facilitation of renewables, etc and compare them between public versus private utilities, borrowing from Nebraska’s “Neighbors First” model of public ownership by municipal utilities, electric cooperatives or public power districts. Following such analysis, the task force will make policy recommendations to the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy by Jan 1, 2021 to transition MA utilities to public ownership by 2026. The Committee will have up to April 15, 2021 to consider the report after which the report will be up for debate and voting by the legislature. 

Considering the rapid response we require to fight the climate crisis and global warming, the timeline of the proposed bill is a reasonable one. Additionally, the provisions in the bill to include labor groups as part of the process is key to uphold the just transition we need for workers from extractive and carbon intensive industries. While we laud these aspects of the bill, we believe it lacks necessary components to achieve a true “democratically-owned” public utility. We are disheartened by the lack of inclusion of EJ communities across the state, who  face existential threats from utility companies.Local EJ communities include Weymouth, where Enbridge is trying to build a gas compressor station in the already polluted and overburdened town; and Chelsea Creek in East Boston, where Eversource is currently trying to force an electrical substation in a community still suffering the high levels of lead contamination and environmental damage from the oil spills caused by Hess Corp. If these communities are not represented on the board for this study to determine democratic ownership, how can that utility be deemed as public?

We are also concerned by the involvement of undefined “industry experts” and the DPU in this task force. While the DPU is meant to be a neutral entity that enforces regulations on the IOUs, its actions in the recent years speak to its true nature. The current chairman of the DPU previously worked for Eversource. At the most recent hearings regarding proposed rate hikes by National Grid in Worcester, Lawrence, Brockton and Great Barrington, little effort was made by the DPU to attract public participation from communities who live in those areas. The DPU has consistently ignored public participation and has seemed to be easily pushed around by the IOUs and their lobbyists. It is therefore not far-reaching to assume that the DPU has been failing to act in the interest of the people; therefore, the inclusion of the chairman of the DPU in the task force is troubling. 

We believe energy democracy to be the path towards decarbonizing the economy and our power grid. However, this bill has no enforceable requirements for decarbonization, beyond the lip service to transitioning to renewables. If we are to keep the global temperature from rising by 1.5C in the next 12 years, we need to decarbonize fast, starting immediately. Since the inception of our #TakeBackTheGrid campaign in the summer of 2018, we have been advocating for no new fossil fuel infrastructure exactly for that purpose. True democratic ownership can only happen when ALL concerned members are included, and Rep. Connolly should take into account the EJ communities that continue to be ignored and harmed by IOUs. Without true energy democracy, we will not win the fight for climate justice; nor can we establish a just, equitable society where energy is decommodified and enjoyed as a right, which it should be in this modern age.

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