hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Gas pipeline plan set to advance

Company prepares for federal review of route through Berkshires



Contributing writer


Protesters gathered in early July at Hilltop Orchard in Richmond, Mass., for the first in a series of demonstrations across the state against a proposed natural gas pipeline. The pipeline would enter the state at Richmond and run through Lenox and Pittsfield on its way east to Dracut. Rosemary Wessel photo


A controversial plan to build a major new natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to eastern Massachusetts through Berkshire and Columbia counties is likely to advance to its next phase in September.

That’s when the company that wants to build the line, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, is expected to submit a pre-filing application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The proposed Northeast Direct Energy pipeline has already prompted public protests in the Berkshires over the summer, but this month’s filing with the FERC will start the official process of assessing the need for the project as well its potential environmental impacts.

“The dialogue has already started, and we’ve already held 30 meetings so far in Massachusetts with local communities and officials,” said Richard Wheatley, a corporate spokesman for Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP, the parent company of Tennessee Gas. “The pre-filing will trigger the official public review process, including open houses sponsored by us, and scoping meetings held by FERC, as well as more detailed studies and reviews.”

The length of this process will depend on many factors. But according to Kinder Morgan’s Web site, the company hopes to obtain its FERC certificate early enough to be able to complete the pipeline and related facilities by the beginning of winter 2018.

Opponents of the pipeline, however, hope a combination of environmental and public policy concerns will keep it from being built.

“This would be very disruptive to the environment and communities along the route, and it is not needed,” said Jane Winn, of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, one of the first organizations that came out against the project.

An exact route has not yet been finalized, but according to the company’s preliminary overview the pipeline would start in the Marcellus shale gas fields of Susquehanna County, Pa., and travel northeast to the site of an existing pipeline in Wright, N.Y., west of Albany. From there, it would go southeast along an existing pipeline route through the towns of Chatham, New Lebanon and Canaan before entering Massachusetts at Richmond.

In Richmond, it would follow the existing pipeline right-of-way for several miles but then would diverge and cross over Lenox Mountain into Kennedy Park in Lenox. It would continue through southeast Pittsfield, into Dalton and on through the hills to the Pioneer Valley and east to Dracut, in the northeastern corner of the state, where it would connect with other natural gas distribution routes.

According to Kinder Morgan, the route of the new pipeline includes 117 miles of “greenfield land” – that is, land not currently occupied by a pipeline -- from Pennsylvania to Wright, N.Y., and another 129 miles of greenfield in Massachusetts. It also would include 50 miles in New York and Massachusetts where it would be co-located with an existing pipeline.

The overall project also includes construction and modification of other existing pipelines elsewhere in the region, including a section in southern Berkshire County that’s tied to a related project to increase capacity of natural gas lines in Connecticut. The company also would undertake modifications and construction of new and existing compressor and meter stations to increase overall regional capacity.


Each side builds case
Wheatley said Tennessee Gas began studying the possibility of the pipeline in 2012. Then in February and March of this year, the company held an “open season” to determine the specific level of interest and demand among customers and shippers, including local gas suppliers such as Berkshire Gas and electric utilities.

The company determined there was a demonstrated need and sufficient interest in long-term commitments among potential users, so it publicly moved forward on the project, Wheatley explained.

The project also was spurred by the New England governors and regional energy organizations that cited increased demand and need for natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil, both for heating and for generating electricity.

Many environmentalists, however, dispute the characterization of natural gas – especially gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – as clean.

In Massachusetts, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and numerous other conservation organizations and concerned citizens have organized to actively oppose the project. On July 6, opponents gathered in Richmond to start a statewide relay of demonstrations against the project that continued throughout the month.

In addition, many communities along the route have adopted resolutions, in some cases through special town meetings, opposing the pipeline. In Berkshire County, resolutions of opposition passed in Richmond, Lenox, Dalton and Windsor. Peru is currently considering a resolution, and Pittsfield is expected to hold hearings and a City Council vote later in September.

Although critics have faulted the New England states for pushing for the pipeline, numerous elected officials, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and state Sen. Ben Downing, have also expressed skepticism over the current plan.


Keeping pace with demand?
One point of contention is whether there’s actually a need in Massachusetts for as much additional natural gas pipeline capacity as the company is proposing.

According to the ISO New England Inc., the nonprofit organization that oversees the electric transmission system in the six New England states, the region currently relies on natural gas to generate 52 percent of its electricity, and that percentage will increase as coal and oil electric plants are phased out in the coming years.

Studies also have suggested that increasing the supply would help to curb high natural gas prices in the region.

Wheaton said his company is responding to demand. He pointed out that Kinder Morgan’s role is to sell transmission service to suppliers, utilities and other parties that provide or purchase natural gas.

“This project is entirely driven by the demand for additional capacity among shippers and our other customers,” he said.

But critics say the pipeline is not needed. Opponents argue there is already a sufficient supply of natural gas in New England and that the pipeline’s projected capacity of up to 2 billion cubic feet per day far exceeds regional peak demand. They say there are less disruptive ways to provide additional supplies during periods of high usage.

“Even insider studies in the industry say there is not a need for this additional infrastructure,” Winn said.

After meeting with critics in July, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and top state environmental officials agreed to conduct further studies of the need and impact of the project.

The project’s scale and destination also has raised suspicion among opponents that a larger purpose of the pipeline is to transport natural gas for export to Canada and other international markets, rather than to serve primarily regional needs.

The company acknowledges that use of the pipeline for export is a possibility, but it says that would be in addition to meeting regional needs.

“It is being built to provide sufficient capacity within New England,” Wheaton said. “However, our role is not to determine how the gas will be used. As an open carrier, we have an obligation to serve all potential users, and we will take all opportunities under consideration.”

Winn and other critics also say that increasing the availability of natural gas could undermine the region’s progress in developing other, cleaner sources of alternative energy. They say it would be better to continue developing solar and wind energy and to boost energy conservation efforts – especially considering the need to cut down on carbon emissions that are blamed for climate change.

“In the state and region, we’ve done well in bringing down the amount of oil and coal that is used,” Winn said. “But natural gas is not a clean fuel either, and if we bring in more, we’ll be adding to the amount of CO2 and CO2 equivalents that contribute to climate change.


Massachusetts has been a leader in clean energy, and we’re on a roll. We should continue that momentum and not lose the impetus by adding to our use of natural gas.”


Opposing fracking, protecting land
The fight over the pipeline also reflects the larger controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method of injecting pressurized water and chemicals into the ground to free up natural gas in shale deposits. Critics say fracking has resulted in groundwater contamination and other environmental damage in states like Pennsylvania where the technique is extensively used.
In the Berkshires, opponents of the Kinder Morgan pipeline object to it in part because it will carry gas from fracked sources.

But the company has responded to these criticisms by emphasizing that construction of the pipeline is a separate issue, and governed by different regulations, than the method of extraction used by gas suppliers.

Although the company hasn’t publicly revealed the specific properties the pipeline would cross, it has been contacting property owners and municipalities for permission to survey the sites it is considering.

Based on these inquiries, it appears the pipeline will go through many environmentally sensitive areas. One particular concern of the project’s opponents is that the likely sites will include land that has been designated as permanently conserved for environmental reasons, including protection of watersheds, wetlands, wildlife, scenic vistas and other purposes, under Article 97, a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1972.

“It would cause major disruption of the environment and can have serious detrimental effects like letting loose invasive plant species,” Winn said. “It’s also very worrisome that they want to take land that is supposed to be protected under Article 97 for what is basically a private construction project.”

Opponents also question the pipeline’s potential effects on property values, scenic and agricultural lands and other quality-of-life issues. Because the route is likely to go near densely settle neighborhoods like those in Pittsfield, opponents also have raised concerns about the safety of having a high-pressure pipeline near homes and public facilities.

These and other issues will be raised and debated during the upcoming formal review process.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the agency that must decide whether to approve the project. It will oversee the review process, grant final approval and perhaps impose changes and conditions. The review process also will involve other federal agencies and policies, local and state regulations, public meetings and hearings and other input from communities along the route. Although state and local laws can be invoked in an effort to block or limit the project, it is possible for the FERC to override them.

Opponents say they’re concerned that Kinder Morgan may try to circumvent the full review process, and they contend the company has been less than forthcoming with information so far.
Winn noted that her organization has intervened in the review of a section of the Connecticut project in Southfield, Mass., and she accused the company of trying to bypass a full review process for that project.

Wheaton, however, said the company is required to subject the overall pipeline project to full public scrutiny at all levels of government, and he said it fully intends to comply with those requirements. He also said the company has been as open as possible so far.

“We’ve tried to be fully transparent,” he said. “When we haven’t been able to answer questions or provide information, it is because we don’t know ourselves yet. There are many factors involved in this that are not answerable in the beginning. We’re still gathering information and doing our research and planning. And many things are subject to change based on the findings, and the public reviews and other input, as we move forward. That is what this process is all about.”
Information from the company’s perspective is available on a section of its corporate Web site at www.kindermorgan.com/business/gas_pipelines/east/neenergydirect.

Information and resources from opponents of the pipeline are available at the Web site www.nofrackedgasinmass.org.