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


News & Issues October 2015


Fracked gas for New England?

In debate over new pipeline, clashing visions of region’s energy future


Contributing writer


Members of the group Stop NY Fracked Gas Pipeline protest outside a compressor station for a natural gas pipeline in Malden Bridge, N.Y. The same company that owns that pipeline is proposing another, larger one that would cross Rensselaer and Berkshire counties on its way to Dracut, Mass. Joan K. Lentini photo


Its backers say a proposed natural gas pipeline across Rensselaer and Berkshire counties is vital to New England’s energy needs and would cut costs for many utility customers.

But opponents say a major new underground pipeline will carry steep environmental costs, isn’t needed, and represents a step backward at a time when the region should be moving away from reliance on fossil fuels.

The debate over the pipeline will enter a new phase on Nov. 20 when its developer, Kinder Morgan Inc., is expected to file a formal application for the project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In considering whether to approve the project, the commission must decide whether the pipeline offers public benefits that outweigh its adverse impacts.

Local environmental and community groups on both sides of the state line have organized in opposition to the project and have packed a series of public forums staged over the past year by the federal energy commission and the pipeline company as part of the project’s pre-application review. The commission’s public comment period ended last month as that phase of its review wound down.

Some of the opposition is tied to the wider controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the method of extracting gas from shale deposits by injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations. The advent of fracking has led to a huge increase in natural gas production over the past decade in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states, and the proposed pipeline would carry gas from the shale fields of Pennsylvania to a distribution hub in Dracut, Mass., in the northern suburbs of Boston.

Fracking also has resulted in much lower prices for natural gas, prompting industries, utilities and homeowners in some regions to switch to gas from other fuels, although the price differential between gas and fuel oil now is not nearly as great as it was a couple of years ago.
But critics say fracking poses a risk of contamination to underground water supplies. Based on those concerns, New York decided last year to ban the use of hydraulic fracturing within its borders, effectively blocking the development of shale gas deposits in the state’s Southern Tier region after a seven-year environmental review.


Gas to electricity
Kinder Morgan, which aims to have the new pipeline in service by the winter of 2018-19, bills itself as the largest energy infrastructure company in North America. It operates or has an interest in roughly 80,000 miles of pipelines. Kinder Morgan’s subsidiary, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, has operated natural gas pipelines in the Northeast for 60 years.

Since 2000, as coal and oil-fired power stations have shut down, natural-gas-fired plants have gone from supplying 15 percent of New England’s electricity to 44 percent, and the percentage is only expected to grow. Natural gas also heats homes and businesses and is the heat source for many industries.

Bottlenecks in the existing natural gas supply system during the high-demand winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15 led to shortages and price spikes, as utility operators tried to buy natural gas and other fuels on the spot market. According to Kinder Morgan, natural gas prices at the distribution hub in Dracut average more than 700 percent higher than prices in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus-Utica production region.

Kinder Morgan first proposed a new pipeline, which it called the Northeast Energy Direct project, in 2012. After several revisions to the route and the pipeline’s capacity, the company now is seeking federal approval of a 412-mile pipeline starting at a pipeline hub in Wright, N.Y., in northeastern Schoharie County, and ending in Dracut. The pressurized pipeline would be 30 inches in diameter, carrying up to 1.2 billion cubic feet of gas per day.

From Wright, the new pipeline would cross Albany County, travel under the Hudson River through a drilled tunnel, and cross the towns of Schodack, Nassau and Stephentown in Rensselaer County and Hancock, Cheshire, Lanesborough, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru and Windsor in Berkshire County. The line would leave Massachusetts near Northfield, cross 17 towns in southern New Hampshire, and return to Massachusetts near Dracut.

Although earlier versions called for a routing across the northern tier of Massachusetts, the New Hampshire section was added to expand gas service in that state, Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said. The company says 91 percent of the route will be along existing electrical transmission and pipeline corridors.

Kinder Morgan’s plans call for construction of compressor stations every 40 to 50 miles to propel gas through the new pipeline. Stations are planned for East Schodack in Rensselaer County and Windsor in Berkshire County.

Kinder Morgan says Tennessee Gas Pipeline and its utility and industrial customers will cover the cost of the project – and that the pipeline will receive no subsidies.

The project would be indirectly supported by ratepayers of utilities that buy gas from the pipeline. But the company estimates that instead of seeing gas and electric rates go up, New England households would benefit from the cheaper gas and save an average of $437 per year.


Meeting a need?
Area utility companies, including National Grid and Berkshire Gas, support the pipeline project, as do industrial companies that would buy the gas. The western Massachusetts local of Laborers International Union of North America also favors the pipeline, citing the roughly 3,000 high-paying jobs that the pipeline would create during its 18 months of construction.

“Independent studies have concluded that New England will need 2 bcf/d [billion cubic feet per day] of gas capacity over the coming years,” Wheatley wrote in an e-mail. “Northeast Energy Direct is indispensable to meet the needs.”

But opponents dispute the idea that the pipeline is needed.

“We were the first organization in eastern New York and New England to do presentations about the pipeline, starting in February 2014,” said Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield. “We came up with a power point presentation on why natural gas is not clean, won’t be cheap, won’t be reliable, and most of all, why we don’t need it. We can do better, and in fact we already are.”

Winn said her group wants to protect the environment for wildlife. One of the biggest threats to wildlife is habitat fragmentation, caused when land clearing and development break up large tracts of open land. The Berkshires section of the pipeline would run through some of the most rural areas in Massachusetts.

Another issue is climate change. Opponents say the pipeline would worsen the climate situation by increasing consumption of fossil fuel. Not only would burning the fuel create carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, but natural gas itself is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Opponents worry that unburned methane would inevitably leak from transmission and poorly maintained distribution lines; some say Berkshire Gas, in particular, has a poor record of fixing leaks.

The Berkshire Environmental Action Team is allied with a number of other anti-pipeline, pro-renewable energy groups, including the Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network, No Fracked Gas in Mass, North East Energy Solutions, and 350 Massachusetts, a climate action group. In addition, there are many local groups opposing the pipeline.

“One of our first presentations was in Cummington,” Winn said. After the presentation, “people divided themselves by town and started organizing.” Almost all the towns along the pipeline’s route have passed resolutions against it, she said.


Changing the route
Bob Connors and Becky Meier organized another group, Stop the New York Fracked Gas Pipeline, from their home in Columbia County. Connors said he learned of the proposed pipeline in April 2014 at an environmental film festival.

“The original pipeline was to go through Canaan, where we live,” he said. “A hundred and thirty people showed up at our first public forum in June.”

The route of the proposed pipeline was changed in December 2014 to avoid Columbia County, instead staying entirely within Rensselaer County from the Hudson River to the Massachusetts state line. The proposed route through Berkshire County also was revised; the current plan avoids more populous communities such as Lenox and Pittsfield that were part of the original proposal.

“We decided to bring what we’d learned to Rensselaer County,” Meier said, explaining that she and Connors are just as strongly opposed to the pipeline even though it would no longer pass through their own town.

All three of the affected towns in Rensselaer County have adopted resolutions opposing the pipeline, and the county legislature has passed three resolutions, Connors said.

“Our last meeting in Schodack had 350 people, and these are towns with very small populations,” he said. “Rensselaer County is very well educated and opposed to the pipeline. No one at meetings says they’re in favor.”

An especially active group wants to protect Burden Lake in the town of Nassau.
New York’s opposition groups “are loosely organized via Listservs,” Connors said.
Although state environmental officials acted late last year to ban the use of hydraulic fracturing in New York, the state’s proximity to the Pennsylvania shale fields means it is still having “an onslaught of infrastructure proposals” to move fracked gas to markets, Connors said.

Opponents say the pipeline will provide few or no direct benefits to its host towns, most of which won’t get gas service or jobs. The pipeline would, however, supply Berkshire Gas, which serves customers in a swath of towns from Great Barrington to North Adams including some on the pipeline route.


Safety concerns
Wheatley said the existing pipelines in the region have an excellent safety record. But opponents point out that those pipelines are smaller and operate at only half the pressure of the proposed line. In addition, the chemical composition of fracked gas is not the same as gas from older fields -- and may contain carcinogenic gases such as toluene and radon.

Much of the opposition to the pipeline focuses on the two proposed compressor stations, which would be industrial-scale facilities. The station in Windsor would abut a wildlife management area, Winn said.

“Noise, light, and chemicals could all have an effect” on wildlife, she said.
Wheatley countered that the stations will comply with state and federal regulations, with noise buffering, sight buffers, and downcast lighting, and would “employ the best available technology for the combustion turbines” that move the gas.

Connors, however, said that in New York, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has neither the facilities nor the budget to check compressor stations for leaks. Instead, it relies on pipeline companies to monitor themselves.

Opponents say Kinder Morgan’s projections of increased demand for natural gas are greatly overstated, especially given the potential for better energy efficiency measures and the growth of renewable energy sources in the region. Some say that because the extra gas isn’t needed in the region, they suspect the pipeline is really aimed at an export market.

“We’re 99.9 percent sure that most of the gas will go overseas via Canada,” Connors said.
But Wheatley insisted that the pipeline “is being developed to serve specifically the New England region.”

Opponents fear that increasing the supply of natural gas will increase greenhouse gas emissions from the region and detract from investment in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.
“If you build infrastructure for fossil fuels, we’ll keep using them,” Meier said. “If we all insulated and put up wind and solar, we’d have no need for natural gas.”

But Wheatley argued that wind and solar power would not be enough to meet New England’s energy needs.

“Renewable energy by itself is not sufficient to meet the anticipated energy demand in the region,” he wrote. “Renewables are a much smaller part of the energy mix and they lack reliability. The wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine, and rivers have variable flows. Reliable natural gas pipelines and infrastructure are absolutely necessary to back up wind and solar.”


Replacing nuclear energy?
Last month, officials at Massachusetts’ only nuclear power station, the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, announced it would close by June 2019, taking a major source of emissions-free electricity out of service.

“The announcement of Pilgrim’s closing is a wake-up call for the region,” Wheatley wrote. “The state simply can’t afford to lose 680 megawatts of baseload generation at a time when consumers have already paid more than $7 billion over the last two winters for electricity than neighboring regions.”

Winn agreed that the closing of the Pilgrim plant “provides urgency” for New England to develop alternative energy sources – and to conserve. But she rejected the idea that the gas pipeline is the answer.

“We want more rooftop and appropriately sited solar and offshore wind,” Winn said. “Energy efficiency is still the cheapest and cleanest source. We have a long way to go on that.”

The two sides disagree about whether increasing reliance on natural gas would add to or reduce carbon emissions in the region. Wheatley said gas would replace dirtier coal- and oil-fired plants. Opponents contend that when emissions from hydraulic fracturing, compressor stations and pipeline leaks are taken into account, natural gas is no improvement.

“We are not only increasing global warming, we are doing terrible things to people who live near fracking fields and compressor stations,” Meier said. “It’s not acceptable to endanger our health for the benefit of a private company. We could reach 100 percent renewables in 20 years. What isn’t there is the will.”

She also pointed out that many scientists believe “we are truly close to the tipping point for climate change” – and that a move away from fossil fuels is needed now to limit future environmental and economic damage.

“In World War II, saying we couldn’t do something wasn’t an option,” Meier said. “I believe we’re at that point with global warming.”