Eiseman/My Turn: A pipeline to the governor

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By Kathryn Eiseman
Friday, June 5, 2015
(Published in the Greenfield Recorder: Saturday, June 6, 2015)

Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration need to hear from opponents of the Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline en masse. There are numerous policy decisions being made and proceedings underway at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU), that will have a direct impact on NED and other natural gas infrastructure projects.

On June 11, the administration can hear directly from us in Greenfield, when the DPU holds its only hearing scheduled for western Massachusetts that could influence the fate of this pipeline. This hearing is specifically to gather public comments on Berkshire Gas’ request for approval of a contract to reserve space on the NED pipeline. If Kinder Morgan lines up enough of these contracts with state approval, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is likely to look favorably upon the project. We must demand that these contracts be subject to rigorous scrutiny and that all costs, impacts and alternatives are thoroughly examined.

These proceedings cannot be conducted in a vacuum. A massive buildout of gas infrastructure can and should be avoided through bold policy-making in favor of renewable energy, energy storage and efficiency.

Efficient forms of electric heating, such as air-sourced heat pumps, will continue to become even more environmentally sound choices as the grid becomes greener through investments in energy storage and sustainable renewables. Energy storage (i.e., batteries, flywheels, etc.) allows solar energy, for example, to be stored and used at night. In fact, the Baker administration has just announced a $10 million commitment for an “energy storage initiative” to support the growing energy storage industry, with the stated intent to “ensure Massachusetts becomes a national leader in the deployment and cost-effective use of energy storage.” A robust energy storage industry could render natural gas infrastructure expansion plans uncompetitive and obsolete.

However, simultaneous multi-billion-dollar investments to expand natural gas infrastructure would impede the grid’s transition to renewables. Unfortunately, while Gov. Baker’s position on the NED project remains unclear, he is actively encouraging development of a mechanism that would allow for electric ratepayer funding of new gas pipeline infrastructure in general. This is taking place through a stand-alone DPU proceeding (Docket No. 15-37). This novel proposal is a variation of the New England-wide electric ratepayer tariff that was scuttled last year, and requires public attention through comment at the DPU and directly to the governor.

While many NED opponents want an energy plan without pipeline expansion, Gov. Baker has indicated that he would prefer to see pipeline expansion that uses “existing routes.” Even FERC — an agency often described as having never met a pipeline it didn’t like — has instructed Kinder Morgan to “Identify any structural or engineering changes on the existing 200 Line (the company’s pipeline across southern Massachusetts) that could accommodate all or a portion of the NED planned gas volumes.”Indeed, just two and a half years ago, Kinder Morgan proposed expansion along its 200 Line that has not taken place.

In conjunction with or separate from possible changes to the 200 Line, Berkshire Gas itself could — in addition to fixing leaks in its system and strengthening energy efficiency programs — explore expanding its own distribution system. Such an expansion might be effected in combination with targeted structural or engineering changes to Kinder Morgan’s Northampton Lateral, which is the 200 Line’s offshoot that connects to the Berkshire Gas territory in the Pioneer Valley. Berkshire Gas also appears well-positioned to increase its storage and use of liquefied natural gas.

All of these alternatives suggest that the NED contracts should not be approved, and the gas companies should go back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, businesses and homeowners are finding ways to work around the moratorium imposed by Berkshire Gas. Yes, some businesses are installing propane tanks to expand, and some people are switching back to oil. But some are installing high efficiency heat pumps, with or without solar panels to power them, and doubling down on weatherization and insulation. Rather than convincing communities that NED is necessary, the moratorium may ultimately force a leap across the so-called natural gas bridge to sustainable and renewable sources of heat and power.

An important step in helping to set the Commonwealth’s energy priorities is to attend the Berkshire Gas hearing in Greenfield, and let the DPU know that the contracts that form the building blocks for NED are unacceptable.

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The DPU hearing to receive comments on the Berkshire Gas petition (DPU Docket No. 15-48) for approval of its agreement with Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, L.L.C. (a Kinder Morgan subsidiary) will be held Thursday, June 11, at 7 p.m. at the Greenfield Middle School, 195 Federal St., Greenfield. Comments on DPU Docket No. 15-37, concerning a mechanism for electrical distribution companies to contract for gas pipeline capacity, are due on the DPU electronic filing system on June 15.

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