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DPU meets raucous Greenfield crowd at hearing on Berkshire Gas-Tennessee Gas pipeline deal


By Mary Serreze | Special to The Republican
on June 12, 2015 at 1:54 PM, updated June 12, 2015 at 4:02 PM

GREENFIELD— It was standing room only in a hot and stuffy room Thursday night as more than 700 people packed the auditorium of the Greenfield Middle School for a state-level public hearing on a plan by Berkshire Gas to purchase capacity on the proposed Kinder Morgan / Tennessee Gas pipeline.DPU officials, including commission chairman Angela M. O’Connor, traveled from Boston to hear testimony on a “precedent agreement” that would let Berkshire Gas purchase up to 36,000 dekatherms of natural gas per day from Tennessee Gas, a subsidiary of the Texas-based Kinder Morgan corporation.More than 90 people signed up to speak at the four-hour hearing. The department will rule on whether the contract serves the public interest.

The Berkshire Gas deal is one of three pending contracts involving Massachusetts gas distribution companies who want to hook into the proposed pipeline. The pipeline known as “Northeast Energy Direct” has been the source of heated controversy in Western Massachusetts.Northeast Energy Direct would cut through 16 small towns in three Western Massachusetts counties while transporting up to 2.2 billion cubic feet of gas per day from the Marcellus-Utica area of Pennsylvania to a gas hub in Dracut. The line would serve markets in the Northeast, including home heating, power plants, and possible export.

Those who testified Thursday included state Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), state Rep. Paul Mark (D-Peru), state Assistant Attorney General Paul Brennan, local elected officials, environmental leaders and ordinary citizens. Congressman James McGovern (D-Worcester) also submitted written testimony.James Avery, an attorney for Berkshire Gas, was the first to speak. He thanked the commissioners, made brief reference to written testimony, and returned to his seat.Paul Brennan, special counsel for energy policy in the office of Attorney General Maura Healey, followed by saying DPU decisions about the pipeline “should not be made in a vacuum” and instead should be considered as part of a broader discussion regarding the region’s gas capacity needs.

Healey has asked the DPU to postpone its review of the local gas contracts pending the outcome of a broader investigation into general gas capacity issues. The attorney general’s office has the statutory authority to protect ratepayers’ interests in DPU proceedings, Brennan noted.

Lawmakers Kulik and Mark, who have been fighting the pipeline, delivered testimony to extended applause before the floor was opened to local officials and then the public at large.Numerous selectboard members said their communities would pay the price for the pipeline without receiving any benefits. “I do not see the positive side of this on towns here in the west,” said Jim Moore, a Conway selectman.Moore said that Berkshire Gas is not a small local company, but a subsidiary of UIL Holdings of New Haven, Connecticut, a company “on the brink of being bought by the large Spanish energy corporation Iberdrola” for $3 billion.

“This proposal to bury a fracked gas pipeline through our many towns, neighborhoods, and rural farms, meadows and woodlands, wetlands, streams, and the Deerfield River is a very personal matter for those of us who call this very special place home,” said Moore.

Moore was one of several who said the current gas hookup moratorium imposed by Berkshire gas amounts to “corporate bullying.” There are alternative ways to ensure an adequate natural gas supply to the region, including forcing Berkshire Gas to “fix its leaks” and engage in better management practices, several speakers said.

Berkshire has announced that the moratorium will stay in place unless or until the pipeline is built, a move which is reportedly hindering economic developmentefforts in the region.

Others said the bulk of the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline would be bound for foreign export and therefore serve no public purpose.

“Berkshire wants only 1.6 percent of what Northeast Energy Direct would deliver,” said David Gilbert Keith of Deerfield. Keith said energy demand in New England is growing at one or two percent, while the gas transported by the NED pipeline would dwarf that need many times over.

Kinder Morgan’s project only makes sense if the extra gas goes to export, said Keith, who opined that electricity and natural gas prices will rise, not drop, if the pipeline is built.

“Exports will make domestic rates have to compete with the much higher world prices,” said Keith. “Foreign buyers of liquified natural gas often represent regulated companies whose mandate is to secure a supply, not to haggle over prices. They will pay premium prices for a reliable supply.”

Many criticized the DPU on procedural grounds, noting that a DPU hearing officer recently denied “intervenor status” to the Northeast Pipeline Awareness Network and to Kulik in the matter of the Berkshire Gas deal. Kulik’s First Hampshire District would be directly impacted by the pipeline.

The joint petition to intervene, which would allow opponents a greater degree of standing, was unfairly denied on the grounds that member towns, Berkshire Gas ratepayers, and Kulik’s constituents are “not substantially and specifically affected by this proceeding,” said Katherine Eiseman, director of Pipeline Awareness Network of the Northeast (PLAN-NE), a coalition of pipeline opponents.

PLAN-NE and its expert counsel have been denied access to key documents and information “at the very heart of this proceeding” that were made available to pipeline proponents and their lawyers, said Eiseman.

Kulik sharply criticized the DPU, saying they have “granted every request made by the companies in these precedent agreement proceedings and denied or declined to rule in a timely manner on requests from other participants.”

Kulik said the DPU appears to be “bending over backwards” to accommodate Tennessee Gas and its parent company Kinder Morgan.

Greenfield Town Council President Hillary Hoffman concurred, saying the DPU’s failure to grant intervenor status to Kulik and the pipeline awareness network was “disturbing,” and that other alternatives should be examined before expanding the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure.

“There is no guarantee this project will save us money on our utility bills,” said Hoffman.

While most spoke in opposition, others stood in favor of the Berkshire Gas deal and the pipeline in general. Greenfield Town Councilor Isaac Maas spoke of a “serious need for additional natural gas resources in our area” and referred to the area’s budding manufacturing renaissance, which he said was being blocked by a shortage of the fuel. Chelsea Furlon, a firefighter and union construction worker from Charlemont, spoke of the need for jobs. Both were heckled by some audience members, despite efforts by Eiseman and others to hush them and let the pipeline supporters speak.

Construction workers holding bright orange pro-pipeline signs bearing the logo of the Laborer’s International Union of North America sat quietly throughout the proceedings. Several of those workers signed up to speak late in the evening.

Some testimony veered toward the colorful, with Leverett resident Glenn Ayres referring to Berkshire Gas as a “multinational Spanish terrorist organization” with an Orwellian motto of “People You Can Trust.”

A Northfield woman told the DPU that she learned last week that a massive gas compressor station would be built right next to her house. She said the haven she and her husband had worked for has suddenly become worthless and uninsurable. “I am begging you, please,” said Holly Lovelace before breaking into tears and falling to her knees before the state officials, who remained expressionless.

Outside the building, construction workers staged a large truck mounted with a bright digital billboard that flashed pro-pipeline messages toward the traffic on Federal Street. A woman who had the appearance of a modern dancer stood in front of the billboard, partially blocking the message with a large scarf.

Local 596 laborer Adam Adamski of Whately stood on the sidewalk holding a sign. “I support the jobs,” Adamski told MassLive / The Republican. “Plus, natural gas is a safe, low-emissions fuel. It’s better than oil, unless you like those globs roiling up on the beaches. Natural gas is the wave of the future.”

DPU Commission Chairman O’Connor, appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015, is former president of the New England Power Generators Association and former Vice President of Energy Policy at Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Kinder Morgan, in a recent fact sheet, says Northeast Energy Direct is designed to supply “domestically-produced, abundant and clean natural gas to help alleviate New England’s uniquely high natural gas and electricity costs caused by severely limited natural gas transportation capacity currently serving the region.”

NED is not the only pipeline deal being proposed for New England. A plan by Spectra Energy would expand an existing pipeline which travels an eastern route through Connecticut and Massachusetts.

It’s not clear when the DPU, which is responsible for oversight of investor-owned utilities in Massachusetts, will rule on the Berkshire Gas precedent agreement. An additional “evidentiary hearing” is scheduled in Boston later this month.

So-called “Anchor shippers” with commitments to buy capacity along the Northeast Energy Direct project include National Grid, Liberty Utilities, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, Connecticut Natural Gas Corporation, Southern Connecticut Gas Corporation, Berkshire Gas, and Westfield Gas & Electric Light Department.

Mary Serreze can be reached at mserreze@gmail.com