Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Pipeline proposal a tangled web of competing interests

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LENOX >> The battle has been joined now that Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., has filed its official, formal application to federal regulators for its proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline. Believe it or not, everything up to now on this extremely divisive project has been preliminary.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission promises a rigorous review that could take at least a year.

From all available evidence, opposition in Massachusetts and New Hampshire is boiling over, with court battles in progress and more threatened. Whether the case made by opponents will sway the regulators is anyone's guess.

A report commissioned by state Attorney General Maura Healey, released a few days ago, was welcomed by the opposition, since the independent study by the Analysis Group — a well-respected Boston consulting firm — concluded that new pipelines are not needed to meet the region's energy needs over the next 15 years, especially if there's greater emphasis on efficiency and conservation.

'Seriously flawed'

Kinder Morgan, in a hard-hitting response, called the study "seriously flawed" because the recommendations "will do nothing to lower unnecessarily high electricity costs for ratepayers or provide long-term solutions to the region's chronic energy problems and environmental challenges."

The company's main point was that the report was confined to the region's electricity-generating requirements, "ignoring the need for more natural gas from local gas utilities struggling to meet increased demand from residents and businesses seeking to switch from oil to gas. The study paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture to reach its conclusions."

The Houston-based energy giant also cited 30 previous studies, including one released by the Patrick administration shortly before the governor left office last December, claiming that the region needs more natural gas to encourage consumer demand to switch from oil and to make sure power plants have enough capacity on the coldest winter days.

A pro-pipeline advocacy group even questioned the validity of the attorney general's commissioned study. Tony Buxton of the Coalition to Lower Energy Costs cited the study's funding by the Boston-based Barr Foundation and the John Merck Fund, which have financed environmental groups and renewable energy advocacy campaigns, the Boston Globe reported.

"Frankly. it's likely the opponents of gas knew they needed some type of study to attempt to refute the 30 studies that say we need gas capacity," said Buxton, an attorney whose clients include industrial groups.

However, some of those 30 studies have been financed by pro-natural gas interests. Besides, the attorney general's study is the most current one available, based on rapidly shifting supply and cost factors in the volatile energy industry.

In an interview with The Eagle, Healey explained that since her office represents the public, "what's really important is that Kinder Morgan has a proposal that electricity ratepayers foot the bill for the pipeline, and my study shows that's wrong."

"We question the gas companies' statements that they need more natural gas," she added. Berkshire Gas, for example, is denying service to new customers in the Pioneer Valley, having declared a moratorium because of tight supplies, according to the company. In Berkshire County, however, there is no such moratorium.

'Facts are the facts'

Critics wonder if the real motivation is that the company's new owner, Iberdrola USA, a branch of Iberdrola based in Spain, is an $80 million investor in Kinder Morgan's Northeast Energy Direct project.

"The facts are the facts," Healey said, "and we'll continue to push to make sure as we think about future energy needs that ratepayers and the environment are protected and that we address climate change."

As for criticism of her study's funding, the attorney general's office pointed out that the Analysis Group also has worked for energy companies and is well regarded for a rigorous, impartial approach.

Representatives of National Grid and Eversource voiced disappointment over the attorney general's findings and called for a combination of pipelines and renewable energy to meet the region's needs.

Meanwhile, to complicate matters further, several opposition groups are fighting the state Department of Public Utilities' approval of the Berkshire Gas and National Grid contracts with Kinder Morgan to purchase additional natural gas, if and when the proposed project is approved by the federal regulators.

"When Kinder Morgan focuses on the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline capacity contracts that they have secured with local gas companies, they gloss over the fact that all of their approved contracts are in legal limbo, being challenged by multiple parties in the courts," said Katy Eisman, leader of the Pipeline Awareness Network of New England.

"The challenges are based in large part on the overblown growth projections [for customer conversions to natural gas] alluded to in the attorney general's report," she added.

As mentioned in the past, my crystal ball is totally cloudy over the outcome of this epic struggle between the natural gas industry and project supporters, versus a wide array of opposition groups, towns, individuals and the state attorney general.

Now, I have to get back to my weekend reading assignment — the 6,000-page formal application filed by Kinder Morgan on Friday.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com


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