Communities worried about a proposed gas pipeline can have a significant impact on the project by combining their resources -- if they lay out specific concerns to be addressed rather than just trying to obstruct.
That's the takeaway from an informational session for town and city leaders held by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) in Pittsfield last week, according to several who attended.
"Municipalities can be very effective," said Jeffrey Bernstein of Newton-based BCK Law in an Eagle interview, "but it's a time-consuming and costly process."
Bernstein was hired by the BRPC to help inform local officials at the meeting, since he and his firm helped Richmond re-route a high-pressure natural gas pipeline out of town in the early 1990s.
The proposed high-pressure natural gas pipeline -- 250 miles long, including offshoots -- would extend from upstate New York to Dracut in northeastern Massachusetts. It is expected to start going before federal regulators in September through a "pre-filing" application from Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Gas.
The Houston-based firm's Northeast Energy Direct Project (renamed from Northeast Expansion Project) would provide additional, necessary natural gas in New England, according to the company, which has stated that suppliers would decide whether any of it would be destined for Atlantic Canada or overseas.
Bernstein pointed out that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would ultimately determine whether the pipeline should win an order of public convenience and necessity.
In order to affect the outcome, according to BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns, a community would have to file formally as an intervenor with FERC late next year, when Kinder Morgan is expected to apply officially for project approval. But the towns would plan their strategy during the pre-filing period that begins this fall.
Attending the July 15 BRPC meeting were representatives of seven out of eight communities along the potential route -- Richmond, Lenox, Washington, Pittsfield, Dalton, Hinsdale and Peru. Windsor did not send an official, Karns said.
"The local governments have a strong role on this," Karns emphasized, since the new pipeline would require local wetlands permits from conservation commissions.
In addition, the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Massachusetts legislature for rights to pass through conservation lands owned by the state or a local community such as watersheds, wetlands and town parks.
"The towns can impose conditions as long as they are fairly reasonable," Karns told The Eagle, and federal regulators would require Kinder Morgan to comply. The conditions could involve erosion, sediment control and road impacts.
As Karns sees it, the communities and his commission are in "a really difficult, challenging spot. Saying ‘hell no' to the pipeline would not best serve the communities' concerns."
"The select boards are very much caught between a rock and a hard place," he said. "They have a constituency that has spoken pretty loudly, saying we don't want this at all. But that's not the best spot to protect your interests if it gets built. The longer you say no, the less chance you have to affect the process."
He described the key issue as ensuring that "citizens are as protected as they can be, that roads aren't beaten up by heavy equipment."
"It's a delicate dance that the local officials will have to struggle with," Karns said. "You have to be at the table instead of outside."
Richmond Town Administrator Matthew Kerwood asserted that the affected communities would do best to join together to have a greater say in the outcome.
"We need to remain engaged and ensure we have a seat at the table," Kerwood said. Even though the final route is subject to revision, he noted, Richmond remains heavily impacted as the gateway community for the pipeline entering Massachusetts from New York state.
"We have to be in the position to do what's in the best interests of our residents," Kerwood stressed.
In Lenox, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen agreed, adding that "the town absolutely has to file as an intervenor when we get to that stage. At some point, we need to find a way to engage the broader community."
As for joint efforts with other towns, Ketchen expressed total support "for this group continuing to work together. It's too big a deal for us to try to navigate on our own."
"Acting collectively is potentially a good thing," said Lenox Select Board Chairman Channing Gibson, "but we have to make ourselves known individually as towns. It's important to follow two tracks."
Gibson described Kinder Morgan as "a company that has a tremendous amount of power and they will play it close to the vest as long as they can. It's very important for us to use our local power."
As attorney Bernstein put it, "the pre-filing is the time for towns to get involved if they seek to affect the route. They can get a seat at the table by making it clear to Tennessee Gas that they have significant concerns about the route. FERC encourages consultation between the company and the community."
"This is certainly a super high-profile project," he declared. "There are a lot of difficulties, but towns can negotiate a ‘host community agreement' that would include construction rules, individual routing changes to avoid sensitive areas, and ensure erosion and sediment control."
But, he noted, "a petition to oppose the pipeline outright would be a longer shot."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto