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


News May 2016



Developer shelves natural-gas pipeline plans


The developer of a controversial natural-gas pipeline across Rensselaer and Berkshire counties has decided to drop the project after failing to sign up enough utility customers to tap into the new gas supply.

The energy company Kinder Morgan Inc. announced April 20 that it had not received the customer commitments it needed to proceed with the $3.3 billion Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, which would have carried gas from the shale fields of Pennsylvania to a distribution hub in Dracut, Mass., north of Boston.

The Boston Globe reported that in addition to contracts with utilities that would buy the gas, the project also depended on state regulators in New England allowing electricity customers to be charged for pipeline construction costs. In Massachusetts, the state Department of Public Utilities approved rules last fall that would have allowed ratepayers to be charged, but the Conservation Law Foundation appealed the ruling, with the case scheduled to be heard in May by the state’s highest court.

“We said all along that we didn’t think there was a need for a big new pipeline across the state,” David Ismay, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, told the Globe. “We feel somewhat vindicated that the board of Kinder Morgan is now seeing what we argued.”
In a statement announcing its decision, Kinder Morgan said that despite two years of effort, its Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. subsidiary, which would have built the new line, “did not received the additional commitments it expected” from utility companies, although Berkshire Gas and National Grid, among others, had said they would buy gas from the new pipeline.
“The New England states have not yet established regulatory procedures to facilitate binding … commitments” from the utilities, the company added, noting that “the process in each state for establishing such procedures is open-ended, and … the ultimate success of those processes is not assured.”

The decision drew cheers from local environmental and community groups that had banded together in opposition to the new underground pipeline, which would have crossed the towns of Schodack, Nassau and Stephentown in Rensselaer County and Hancock, Cheshire, Lanesborough, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru and Windsor in Berkshire County.

Opponents packed a series of public forums on the project over the past year and a half, arguing that pipeline wasn’t needed, would carry steep environmental costs and represented a step backward at a time when the region should be moving away from reliance on fossil fuels because of concerns about climate change.

Stop NY Fracked Gas Pipeline, a group working in Columbia and Rensselaer counties, issued a statement calling Kinder Morgan’s decision “another nail in the coffin for fossil fuel usage in the USA and beyond” and expressing hope for “the beginning of a safer, saner energy future.”
Some big energy consumers, however, lamented the loss of a project that was expected to help lower power costs in New England, where natural gas prices lately have been sharply higher than in the rest of the country.

“This was our big chance to pay lower energy costs like everybody else,” Anthony Buxton of the Coalition to Lower Energy Costs, a group of industrial and commercial power users, told the Globe. “That opportunity is gone.”

Despite its decision to abandon its Northeast Energy Direct pipeline plan, Kinder Morgan is continuing to pursue a separate pipeline expansion in Berkshire County in which it wants to cut through a stretch of state-protected land in Otis State Forest. That proposal, known as the Connecticut Expansion Project, was the focus of a hearing last month in Berkshire Superior Court, where the state is attempting to block the company from carrying out eminent domain proceedings to take possession of the protected land. The project has been approved by federal regulators.

In other news from around the region in April:


Vermont, Mass. debate legalized pot
A push to legalize marijuana in Vermont appears to be losing momentum as the state legislative session nears its end, but debate over the issue is just heating up in Massachusetts, where voters are expected to decide a statewide ballot question on marijuana legalization in November.
In Vermont, the state Senate passed a bill in February to create a legal, regulated market for marijuana, sweeping away decades of prohibition. Gov. Peter Shumlin had indicated his willingness to sign the Senate bill, raising the expectation that Vermont would soon become the fifth state to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use.

But the Senate bill has faced a skeptical reception in the House, where a pair of committees rewrote the measure in a way that fell well short of full-fledged legalization.

First, in early April, the House Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill that would only create a commission to study marijuana legalization.

The Rutland Herald quoted one committee member, Rep. Thomas Burditt, R-West Rutland, as saying he personally supported the Senate bill but that his constituents had urged him by a margin of more than 8-to-1 to vote against it.
“An adult has the right to make a choice for themselves and do whatever they want, as long as it’s not hurting anybody else; that’s my personal view,” Burditt told the paper. But he added, “I work for my constituents, bottom line.”
(Public opinion statewide does not appear to match the breakdown among Burditt’s constituents, however. A poll conducted in February by the Castleton Polling Institute and Vermont Public Radio found 55 percent of Vermonters supported marijuana legalization, while 32 percent were opposed.)
Later in April, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a different version of the bill, allowing for possession of up to one ounce of pot and cultivation of up to two marijuana plants – a far cry from the fully legal marketplace contemplated by the Senate.

The bill went next to the House Appropriations Committee, where it appeared to stall. Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith told the Herald in late April that the bill did not have enough support in the committee to advance.

“If I were a betting man I would not bet anything would come out of the House,” he said.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, a coalition of state officials – including Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat – announced last month that they would campaign against a marijuana legalization proposal put forward by citizen petition. The citizen initiative, which is expected to win placement on the state ballot in November, would create a regulated market for marijuana sales and allow adults to possess up to 10 ounces at home.
The governor said the ballot measure would “threaten to reverse progress combating the growing opioid epidemic,” but supporters of the proposal said it was unfair to link opioids, which are highly addictive, to marijuana, which they view as benign.

Massachusetts voters have a history of approving marijuana-related ballot questions that were opposed by the state’s political leaders, including in 2008, when they decriminalized possession of up to an ounce, and in 2012, when they authorized creation of the state’s medical marijuana program. Both measures garnered more than 60 percent of the vote.


Newspapers return to local ownership
A group of investors with ties to the Berkshires has agreed to buy The Berkshire Eagle and its three sister newspapers in southern Vermont from the corporate chain that has controlled them for the past two decades.

The sale of the New England Newspapers group – which includes the Eagle as well as the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and the weekly Manchester Journal – was announced April 21 and was expected to take effect May 2. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.
The independent online news site The Berkshire Edge reported that the deal had been in the works for more than a year and was initiated by Frederic Rutberg, a former Berkshire District Court judge who retired in early 2015 and lives in Stockbridge. Rutberg, 70, recruited three other investors and formed a limited liability company to carry out the transaction; when the sale is complete, he will hold the title of president of New England Newspapers.

Besides Rutberg, the principals in the new ownership group include two part-time residents of Stockbridge – Robert Wilmers, 80, the chairman and chief executive of M&T Bank Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., and John “Hans” Morris, 56, the managing partner of Nyca Partners LLC, a venture capital firm based in New York City – as well as Stanford Lipsey, 88, who was publisher of The Buffalo News for 32 years until his retirement in 2012.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Rutberg said he is committed to expanding the papers’ local news coverage and plans to restore newsroom and other jobs that were cut by the previous ownership.

“I think that a strong, viable, healthy community paper can do an enormous amount to impact the cultural, social and economic life in the community for the better,” Rutberg told the Globe.
The deal ends two decades of out-of-town ownership that began in 1995 when the Miller family, which had owned the Eagle for more than a century, sold New England Newspapers to Media News Group of Denver.

Media News, which in more recent years had come under the financial control of a New York City hedge fund and rebranded itself as Digital First Media, carried out a series of staffing cutbacks over the years, most recently in June, when it laid off 10 reporters, editors and other newsgathering employees at the Eagle and its sister papers in Vermont. Along the way, Media News also acquired two other newspapers in Berkshire County – the daily North Adams Transcript and The Advocate weekly; it closed them both in 2014.


-- Compiled by Fred Daley