BOSTON — As proposals to build new pipelines and related infrastructure meet opposition from community leaders and environmental activists across Massachusetts, gas companies have frozen new gas hookups several communities citing a lack of pipeline capacity.
Since late January, Holyoke Gas & Electric and Middleborough Gas and Electric have imposed moratoriums on new residential natural gas hookups, adding Holyoke, Southampton and Middleborough to a list of about a dozen towns already under similar freezes.
"While inexpensive natural gas has never been more plentiful in the United States, there is insufficient pipeline capacity in our region to deliver additional load," HG&E wrote in its Jan. 28 announcement. "Recent proposals that would increase natural gas capacity in the region have been met with opposition, and the current pipeline constraints are causing significant adverse environmental and economic impacts on the region's ratepayers."
HG&E, which serves about 9,900 gas meters in Holyoke and Southampton, said existing customers can make upgrades to their service so long as their usage does not increase and that the utility "may be able to accommodate certain commercial and industrial requests" depending on the project's specific load profile.
The HG&E moratorium is not the first in western Massachusetts. Berkshire Gas Co. has had a new hookup moratorium in eight Franklin and Hampshire county towns for about four years and Columbia Gas has had a moratorium on new natural gas service in Northampton and Easthampton since 2014.
"This now makes 10 communities in Western Massachusetts, home to more than 150,000 people, where residents and businesses who want to connect to clean, affordable, abundant natural gas are being denied that choice. And the only reason is because of opposition in New York and New England to sensible, long-overdue upgrades of our energy infrastructure," said Stephen Dodge, executive director of the Massachusetts Petroleum Council. "There's no shortage of natural gas — there's a shortage of sensible policy about energy infrastructure."
Last week, Middleborough Gas and Electric said that "due to the lack of new natural gas capacity in the region," it will no longer be able to "meet requests for new natural gas service as of February 2019."
"MGED is currently evaluating options to bring additional sources of natural gas supply to our service territory but, due to significant opposition to adding new capacity to the region and State, the time frame for securing additional capacity is uncertain, and MGED is committed to supplying the current level of firm customer demand," MGED General Manager Jackie Crowley wrote to gas and electric commissioners last week.
Massachusetts deals with some of the highest energy prices in the country and state leaders have been at odds over whether the state needs more natural gas pipeline capacity. Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration have a stated desire to increase natural gas capacity into the New England region, but Attorney General Maura Healey and some Democratic lawmakers have said additional capacity is not the best solution to meet the state's longer-term energy demand needs.
In recent years, pipeline projects have been met with increasing opposition from environmental activists and community leaders. Kinder Morgan's Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project was scrapped amid widespread opposition and recently activists and municipal leaders on the South Shore have waged a monthslong opposition campaign against a natural gas compressor station planned for Weymouth.
HG&E said that it has evaluated several options for increasing capacity and identified a solution that involves its cooperation with Columbia Gas on that utility's slate of planned expansion projects in the lower Pioneer Valley.
"The plan requires [Columbia Gas] to obtain certain approvals for system upgrades in other communities, HG&E is working with [Columbia Gas] to determine the viability of those approvals," HG&E wrote. "This solution will address local capacity issues, which will help reduce regional carbon emissions, improve reliability, and support local economic development."
The Springfield Republican reported last year that Columbia Gas plans to "work closely with Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., which now seeks state and federal permits for infrastructure upgrades in Agawam and Longmeadow," and "proposes new lines up either side of the Connecticut River to serve Springfield, Longmeadow, Agawam, West Springfield, Holyoke, Easthampton, and Northampton."
Those projects have met opposition from climate activists and local leaders like Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, the Republican reported.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Tuesday that demand for natural gas in New England registered at 4.34 billion cubic feet per day and that the regional pipeline was operating at 77.1 percent capacity. The agency said that during a brief cold snap in January, "increased heating demand strained the natural gas system as natural gas consumption in the region, on January 21, 2019, reached their highest level this winter."