A plan to have Maine electric consumers underwrite a contract to help pay for expanded natural gas capacity in New England suffered a major setback Wednesday when a court in Massachusetts ruled against a similar proposal in the Bay State. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the state’s Department of Public Utilities’ requirement that electricity customers help subsidize construction of private gas pipelines.

The court said private companies should bear all the financial risks. Reaction came swiftly in Maine, where the Public Utilities Commission last month gave conditional approval for a similar measure. After two years of study, Maine regulators decided that subsidizing new supply would benefit residents overall by lowering natural gas and electricity rates. The decision also is a blow to the priorities of Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration has promoted natural gas expansion as a key to lowering the state’s electricity costs.

Access Northeast pipeline was endorsed by two of Maine’s three PUC commissioners in the agency’s approval of pursuing pipeline capacity here.

Maine’s action was conditioned on four other New England states taking similar action, noted Ben Tettlebaum, a staff attorney in Portland. Massachusetts, which uses the most natural gas in the region, was the pivotal state in any plans for ratepayers underwriting pipeline expansion through their power rates. “With that state out of the picture, prospects for a regional gas pipeline expansion are slim to none,” Tettlebaum said. “No other party is willing to take the significant risk of entering into a long-term contract for a gas pipeline, which is why Maine has tried to saddle electric ratepayers with this gamble.”

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