Federal regulators have approved construction of a Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. spur that includes nearly four miles of loops that pass through Otis State Forest in Sandisfield.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Friday gave the green light to the Connecticut Expansion Project, which also includes loops of just over one mile in Albany County, N.Y, and an eight-mile portion of Hampden County into northern Connecticut.
Regulators ruled that any impact on the state-protected conservation land in Berkshire County would be insignificant. Opponents, however, are still hoping the state will intervene before trees begin to be cut down.
Separately, the regulators continue to review the proposed 412-mile, $5.2 billion Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project that extends from upstate New York to Dracut in northeast Massachusetts, passing through seven Berkshire County communities, nine towns in the Pioneer Valley and 17 more in southern New Hampshire.
Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., has described the $86 million Connecticut Expansion Project as an upgrade of its existing system "to meet increased demand in the Northeast for transportation capacity for natural gas."
The expansion project includes three separate loops extending from current Tennessee Gas pipelines — in Bethlehem, N.Y., Sandisfield in southeast Berkshire County, and from Agawam to East Granby, Conn., in Hartford County. The additional supply of 72 million cubic feet of gas per day will serve three Connecticut utility companies.
Because the new, 36-inch pipeline loop would affect Otis State Forest, a Sandisfield citizens group opposed the project, along with Mass Audubon, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
In their ruling, the federal regulators conceded that if state or local laws or regulations conflict with the approval, "parties are free to bring the matter before a federal court for resolution."
The commission accepted the company's argument that the additional supply is necessary and would benefit the public. The regulators also agreed that the project has sufficient financial backing from the Connecticut utilities to avoid relying on subsidies from Tennessee's existing customers.
"Because Tennessee proposes to site the pipeline loops and above-ground facilities within or adjacent to existing right-of-ways we find that Tennessee has minimized impacts on landowners and surrounding communities," the commission stated. "The public convenience and necessity requires approval of Tennessee's proposal."
The commission acknowledged that it received an outpouring of opposition during the public comment period last fall. Critics questioned the purpose and need for the new pipeline, safety concerns and environmental impacts, specifically on the land within Otis State Forest protected under Article 97 of the state constitution.
A two-thirds vote by state lawmakers is required to override Article 97.
The state forest and adjacent land was preserved through a $5 million agreement in 1997 involving the state and Mass Audubon.
The 3,800 acres includes a 400-year-old Eastern Hemlock old growth forest, as well as the 900-acre Spectacle Pond Farm.
Kinder Morgan officials welcomed the federal commission's determination that the project is "in the public interest."
"It will provide low-cost domestic natural gas to relieve New England's constrained pipeline system and help meet the region's critical need for additional natural gas supplies," company spokesman Steve Crawford stated.
"Tennessee Gas Pipeline is pleased that FERC found that TGP's proposal 'minimized impacts on landowners and surrounding communities,' " the statement continued. "We will continue to work with officials to ensure that project components will meet all state and local environmental standards."
According to project opponent Kathryn Eiseman, president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast, Tennessee Gas sought swift approval from the regulators so it could begin cutting down trees for the project before the end of this month.
"The top priority in Sandisfield now is to make sure that tree felling is not allowed to begin while challenges to the FERC order play out," she said. "TGP still doesn't have all the permits it needs to begin construction of this project, but pipeline companies sometimes argue that tree cutting is not part of 'construction.' "
Eiseman added that "all eyes should now be on the Baker administration, to see whether the Department of Environmental Protection will issue a water quality certificate, and to see what protective measures are taken by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which owns Otis State Forest."
She also suggested that the state attorney general's office could challenge the FERC order and to seek "protection of the public trust with respect to the Article 97 land."
The regulators asserted that it is "not practical nor required" for approval to await all state and local permits to be issued under national environmental guidelines. But commissioners will not authorize construction to begin until all permits are granted under the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts, among others.
In addition, the commissioners disputed Mass Audubon's contention that studies on the pipeline's impact on wetlands and on threatened or endangered species were "inadequate." The commission stated that it consulted sufficiently with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
FERC also dismissed assertions by the Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposed to the Pipeline (STOP) that the project is unnecessary because the region is "reducing its demand for natural gas in favor of renewable energy."
Concerns by the Sandisfield opponents that the town's drinking water supply might be affected by blasting operations during project construction also were set aside by the commission.
As for the contention by several opponents that the Connecticut Expansion Project is closely tied to Kinder Morgan's 412-mile Northeast Energy Direct (NED) project, the commissioners dismissed any similarities, stating that the two proposals "are not physically, functionally or financially connected."
Tennessee Gas can operate the Connecticut Expansion Project and provide service to the project's three shippers even if the NED Project is not built, the regulators asserted.
The commission also stated that the two projects are not financially connected, since the Connecticut expansion, proposed one year earlier than NED, is "fully subscribed and is not dependent on the NED Project for financial viability."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.