BOSTON — Western Massachusetts residents by the dozen piled into Gardner Auditorium on Tuesday morning to oppose a bill that would allow a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan to extend a gas pipeline into protected conservation land in Sandisfield.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., LLC, a Kinder Morgan company, seeks to add a 3.8-mile loop of 36-inch diameter pipe to one of Sandisfield's existing gas pipelines as part of its Connecticut Expansion Project.
Rep. Garrett Bradley of Hingham filed a bill, which if passed, would convey the necessary easements to Tennessee Gas. Sandisfield-area lawmakers refused to file the bill because it would require the removal of protected land from the shelter of Article 97 of the state constitution, the state's primary conservation law.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, told The Eagle three main factors in his opposition to the bill were that the community opposes it, passage could set a "dangerous" precedent of taking Article 97 lands to build fossil fuel energy infrastructure, and the bill "flies in the face of the Commonwealth's energy priorities."
"It's not that we haven't taken Article 97 lands out of the status before," Downing said, "but when we have it's always been for reasons the community generally supported. This community does not support the pipeline."
He added, "Taking [protected lands] out of that present status would erode the Commonwealth's leadership position when it comes to environmental protection and, in doing so, would set a dangerous precedent for other pipeline projects."
Sandisfield residents have been vocal in their overwhelming opposition to the project, calling it "the wrong place, the wrong time and the wrong use."
Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will decide whether the project goes ahead.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, made similar points as Downing in an Eagle interview.
"This small little pipeline hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but the legislative body needs to pay attention," Pignatelli said. "If there's a deviation [from Article 97] for this, dozens of proposals and thousands of acres of protected land will be put at risk by parties using the same argument."
He added, "It may ultimately have to be challenged in court if the [federal government] approves this."
Though his bill was the only one to be considered, Bradley was not present at the Tuesday hearing of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. Reached by phone in the afternoon, he said he filed the bill, despite it affecting a town about 140 miles from his district, to start a conversation about meeting the state's future energy needs.
"Access to energy is a Commonwealth issue and not a district issue. With all due respect to the people of Sanidsfield, I don't view this specifically — though I know they disagree — as a local issue," said Bradley, who is also the second assistant House majority leader. "Our energy future is something that is a state issue, not a local issue."
Bradley said he does not testify on behalf of every bill he files and thought it was more important that the committee heard from those directly involved in the project.
Pignatelli said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by Bradley's move.
"Some of our older colleagues would say it's unwritten code that you don't [propose legislation in someone else's district," Pignatelli said. "We had to deal with it, and we did today in what was a great public hearing."
After fully examining the proposal — some committee members have already visited the areas in question in Sandisfield — the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight will release a statement supporting, opposing, or requesting it be studied further.
The project "involves the installation of new pipeline segments adjacent to and connecting with existing pipeline to add incremental capacity," Kinder Morgan says on a website devoted to the Connecticut Expansion Project.
The easements, as laid out in the bill, would include pipeline markers, protection facilities and permanent and temporary access roads. Kinder Morgan said the easements are necessary to build, maintain and repair the proposed loop and to upgrade the existing infrastructure.
Kimberly Watson, president of Tennessee Gas Pipeline, said the project has already completed the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' Environmental Policy Act certification process, and has developed a mitigation plan that would ensure there would be no net loss of protected lands.
"For almost two years, straddling the administrations of both governors Patrick and Baker, TGP has been reaching out to local and state officials to coordinate and obtain permits and approvals, and to hold informational meetings for the public," Watson said. "The mitigation plan we have put in place provides compensation of equal or greater value to the easement we are seeking, ensures there will be no net loss of public lands, and includes land management activities."
Last week, 63 organizations including the Trustees of Reservations, Mass Audubon, Environmental League of Massachusetts, Mass Land Trust Coalition and Conservation Law Foundation, sent a letter to committee members opposing the bill, arguing that the project would result in degradation of protected open spaces.
"We are concerned that a private, out-of-state company now views these areas as convenient for the construction of energy infrastructure at an unprecedented scale, which will fragment and devalue the network of public and private conservation land that we, along with the Legislature, other conservation organizations, municipalities, and the Commonwealth, have worked for decades to protect," the groups wrote in the letter.
Despite the fact that their districts would not be directly impacted by proposed pipeline loop, Sens. Kathleen O'Connor Ives and Barbara L'Italien, as well as Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Stephen Kulik also testified in opposition to the bill.
All four lawmakers, and about 10 others who Kulik said signed a letter signalling their opposition to the bill, represent cities or towns that would be affected by the Kinder Morgan's Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project, which would carry natural gas from Pennsylvania through New York, into Western Massachusetts, into New Hampshire and back into Massachusetts on the North Shore.
"We believe the bill before you today represents a very significant precedent-setting vehicle that would impact the future development of the Northeast Energy Direct project and we urge you strongly to reject this bill," Kulik told the committee.
O'Connor Ives said she was concerned by the appearance that Sandisfield "residents and local electeds aren't being heard and don't have the tools in their toolboxes to have their wishes respected."
"Saying 'no' now sets an important precedent, since Kinder Morgan intends on crossing over 100 constitutionally protected parcels in our state. This easement would only be the beginning," O'Connor Ives said. "We must loudly state we will not change Massachusetts legal protections designed to ensure public safety and environmental stewardship. By rejecting this bill we can draw a critical line in the sand."
Pignatelli said the state's federal delegation — Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren — have both opposed the bill but need to get more involved in the fight than simply "sending out press releases."
"If that's what they believe, that it's wrong, then now's the time to pick up the phone and call FERC," Pignatelli said.