BOSTON >> Forty-three miles and four days after they set out on a march from Medway, hundreds of activists filled the Statehouse on Monday morning, chanting, "Stop the pipeline or the people will."
The "People Over Pipelines" march took the demonstrators through communities including Norfolk, Walpole, Sharon, Stoughton, Canton and Weymouth, places that would be affected by a proposed Spectra Energy pipeline.
"For every person who yelled an angry remark at us, there were 10 people or more honking their horns in support, cheering us on, offering words of encouragement," Better Future Project executive director Craig Altemose said. "The state is united behind us on this one."
Altemose told ralliers the state is at a decisive moment in its energy plans, with lawmakers facing a "fork in the road" between "Spectra street" and "the path of the people" as they work on sweeping legislation to diversify the state's energy mix.
Demonstrators arrived at the Statehouse on Sunday evening, and around two dozen camped out overnight, according to organizers. Monday morning they headed into the building, with plans to urge Beacon Hill officials to adopt a "pipeline tax" ban the Senate added to its omnibus energy bill.
During debate on the energy bill last month, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment filed by Sen. Patricia Jehlen specifying that nothing in the bill should be construed as authorizing the Department of Public Utilities "to review and approve contracts for natural gas pipeline capacity filed by electric companies."
Jehlen has said the amendment would keep ratepayers from subsidizing pipeline projects and leave utilities to shoulder the costs of construction.
Jehlen credited the protesters with making the public aware that gas utilities would otherwise be able to add a surcharge to electric bills for pipeline construction costs.
"That was very quiet, but you brought it out of the boardrooms and into the streets and into the newspapers and on to the billboards, and people can't avoid knowing it now," the Somerville Democrat said. "And when people know about this deal they say no. And when we hear from you, I believe that we will say no."
The prohibition on charging ratepayers for pipeline construction is among several differences between the House and Senate versions of the energy bill (H 4385 and S 2400). A conference committee of six lawmakers melding the two bills into one began its closed-door negotiations last week.
"We have every reason to expect that it's going to pass, and yet we also have every reason to prepare in case it doesn't, because the stakes are too high," Altemose said of Jehlen's amendment, urging the demonstrators to continue making their voices heard.
Sen. Marc Pacheco — a Taunton Democrat serving on the conference committee along with Sens. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Bruce Tarr and Reps. Brian Dempsey, Thomas Golden and Brad Jones — said he opposes the construction of new pipelines because of public health and environmental concerns.
"First of all, we don't need the pipeline. We don't need it," Pacheco said. "What we need is we need to walk into the rest of this 21st century embracing 100 percent renewable clean energy, and we need to do that, why? Because it will actually create more jobs."
Massachusetts Petroleum Council director Stephen Dodge told reporters he understood the concerns of the protesters, who he described as "very passionate."
Dodge said the state should get its energy from a "healthy mix of all sources," including both fossil fuels and renewables to ensure it can meet demand.
"First of all, safety is paramount and we understand that climate change an issue," Dodge said. "There's no question about that but the flipside of the coin is Massachusetts ratepayers are paying the highest utility prices in the country and there really doesn't have to be a need for that."