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A big fight over a natural gas pipeline project divides Massachusetts

By   /   July 23, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo from Kinder Morgan

MASSACHUSETTS BATTLE: Critics have lined up in opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline that would service customers in Massachusetts and New England. Supporters say capacity has to be expanded to meet supply and reduce electricity bills.

By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org

Massachusetts and other New England ratepayers paid $7 billion more for electricity the past two winters than they paid in previous years, estimates say.

The chief culprit, energy analysts say, is a lack of pipeline capacity, leaving the region choked off from access to natural gas in the massive Marcellus shale formation, some 300 miles away in Pennsylvania.

You may think plans to build a new pipeline would be met with cheers from ratepayers, but there’s still loud opposition from critics of a number of projects.

Kinder Morgan, for instance, issued a revised proposal to build a $3.3 billion natural gas pipeline from Wright, New York to Dracut, Massachusetts.

“This is yet another fossil fuel that we’re becoming overly dependent on,” said Kathryn Eiseman, president of the Pipeline Awareness Network for the Northeast who lives in Cummington, Massachusetts. “It’s not being treated as a bridge (fuel) anymore, really. If you put in this huge amount of gas infrastructure then we’re locked into using it for much longer than we can afford to, given the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”

But supporters say a new pipeline — regardless who builds it — won’t just deliver natural gas but would also bring much-needed financial relief to ratepayers in New England, who have shivered through two consecutive brutal winters.

“We need more natural gas into New England,” said Kevin Kelly, manager at Groton Electric and Light. “I don’t care what the specific project is … I don’t care about the path the pipeline takes and I don’t care who builds the pipeline, but we need more supply.”

The region’s energy supply has been hit hard in recent years, as nuclear and coal facilities have been retired or gone offline.

According to ISO New England, an independent and federally regulated regional transmission organization that dispatches power plants in six states, New England will keep seeing higher electricity prices until new infrastructure is added.

Kelly told Watchdog.org that Groton Electric and Light paid 12 to 13 cents a kilowatt hour last winter; most of the rest of the country paid about three to four cents. The winter before, Kelly said, the price in New England was well above 20 cents a kilowatt hour.

“The reason why our price was only 12 to 13 cents last (winter) was because the oil market collapsed,” Kelly said in a telephone interview. “But the thing is, we were paying 12 cents while 80 percent of the United States was paying three … Do I like paying 12 when the rest of the United States is paying three or four? Absolutely not.”

“The concern for our organization is that we have become over-reliant on natural gas in New England,” said Peter Shattuck, clean energy and initiative director at the Acadia Center, a clean energy group based in Boston. “And the proposed solution in the form of a new, publicly funded gas pipeline would increase that problem.”

The Kinder Morgan pipeline has received the blessing of the Beacon Hill Institute, a free-market think tank based in Boston. It released an economic analysis last month predicting the project’s construction would lead to 1,713 temporary jobs while, in the long-term, eliminating 70 percent of the state’s natural gas shortage and boosting real disposable income by $610 per family.

A number of labor unions in Massachusetts have come out in support of the project.

“You can’t just look at that one small picture, you have to look at the grand scheme,” Colton Andrews, Union 596 of Laborers International Union of North America field organizer told the Greenfield Recorder. “I think this pipeline will lead to many, many years of economic growth and development.”

The Kinder Morgan pipeline project will be run by a subsidiary, the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., and has been dubbed Northeast Energy Direct, or NED.

In a revised proposal, Kinder Morgan announced the project will be scaled down from the original plan.

For example, the pipeline itself will be 30 inches in diameter instead of 36 inches, as originally proposed, and two of nine proposed lateral lines along with related facilities were eliminated to ensure the pipeline’s footprint is as small as possible.

In an effort to reduce complaints about noise, Kinder Morgan said it would reduce the horsepower requirements at proposed compressor stations along the pipeline.

Map from Kinder Morgan

Proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline route

But the new proposal hasn’t placated critics.

“It is not healthy from the ratepayers’ perspective to be so dependent on these highly volatile commodities for our energy use when we can be reducing our reliance by implementing energy efficiency measures and transitioning to more renewables, which, once you pay the capital costs, the fuel is free,” Eiseman said.

Kinder Morgan responded by saying that natural gas is a much cleaner energy source than coal-fired power plants and more reliable than wind and solar energy.

“Solar and wind resources are only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing,” the company’s July 16 new release says. “To ensure that electricity is available for homes, businesses and industry on a reliable basis, operators of the electric grid need reliable sources of power to account for the variability associated with increased reliance on renewable energy. Because of its flexibility and reliability, natural gas-fired electric generation serves as the ideal reliable source of electricity to support renewable energy.”

Eugene Benson, executive director at the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, says his group hasn’t come out against the pipeline project but called the Kinder Morgan analysis of environmental impacts “woefully inadequate.”

“They will be widening, significantly in some cases, the current right of way because, for example, they can’t be right underneath an electric transmission line,” Benson told Watchdog.org. “And in some cases they’ll be going through property that is protected under the state constitution.”

Kinder Morgan says 91 percent of the Northeast Energy Direct project will run along the same pathways as existing utility corridors.

But some landowners, whose properties run along the proposed pipeline construction, don’t want it in their backyards.

“Accidents do happen,” Eiseman told Watchdog.org in a telephone interview. “Explosions do happen. That’s concerning to landowners, even if it’s rare. If the pipeline isn’t needed, it’s an unnecessary risk.”

Opponents also claim that Kinder Morgan will send only some of the new pipeline’s natural gas to ratepayers, with the remainder eventually getting sold at liquefied natural gas — LNG — terminals.

“Kinder Morgan themselves would not be exporting the gas, but they would want to have someone buy it who would export the gas,” Eiseman said.

“We don’t have any LNG customers,” Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley told Watchdog.org. “The project is intended for adding gas capacity and removing pipeline constraints into the Northeast and New England.

“However, if a customer comes along and says, we’d like to contract with you for X amount of capacity to move past Dracut, Massachusetts and go north for a future facility or whatever, we’re obligated to move that gas for them in interstate commerce. But that is not to say the project is specifically designed to move gas to future LNG export facilities and, as you know, not many of them are out there.”

The revised draft of the pipeline will go before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of an environmental report later this month.

FERC has scheduled a series of meetings for formal public comment along the pipeline’s proposed route, ending Aug. 31.

“We are in it for the long haul,” Eiseman said.

“It’s kind of a vicious cycle,” Shattuck told Watchdog.org. “If you build more gas pipelines and get more reliant on natural gas, then you’re going to create a situation where there’s a case for building even more pipelines. But we know more than anything that natural gas prices are unpredictable.”

“The short elevator pitch is, New England is paying a huge premium over the rest of the United States and it’s just a delivery issue,” Kelly said. “We just need more supply delivered. And until that’s resolved, we’re going to pay a huge premium. And that huge premium means the economy suffers and jobs suffer and businesses are going to move to the rest of the country.”

Officials at Kinder Morgan say if the Northeast Energy Direct project clears the federal regulatory hurdles it can start delivering natural gas to Massachusetts and other New England states by Nov. 1, 2018.

A number of other pipeline proposals from other contractors have been discussed, including one from Spectra Energy.

Backed by a couple of the biggest utility companies in New England, it’s called the Access Northeast project and, if completed, will come up along the eastern part of New England, with the addition originating in Connecticut and extending into Maine.

Map from Spectra Energy

Access Northeast proposed pipeline route

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Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.