The Tennessee Gas Company is moving quickly in Otis State Forest but not so the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) when it comes to answering questions about the natural gas pipeline construction process there. Before any trees come down, the agency should respond to elected officials representing the Berkshires.
U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey asked FERC in a letter of April 18 to revoke Tennessee Gas's permit to begin clearing forest in Sandisfield as part of its $93 million Connecticut Gas Expansion Project on the grounds that FERC did not have a proper quorum in making its decision and the agency has not conducted a rehearing sought by residents of Sandisfield. These concerns were echoed Monday in a letter from First District Congressman Richard Neal and in a request from the Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network, which went further in asserting that Native American sites along the pipeline path aren't assured of protection, and low natural gas demand projections don't justify a "public need" for the project. Low projections for demand was the basic reason why Kinder Morgan abandoned its plans for construction of a natural gas pipeline across Massachusetts. (Tennessee Gas is a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan.)
The quorum argument has merit. FERC is a nominally independent five-member agency, but is currently down to just two, Acting Chairwoman Cheryl A. LaFleur and Collette D. Honorable, whose term expires in two months. FERC lost its quorum in February when Commissioner Norman Ray resigned in protest of President Trump's appointment of Ms. LaFleur as acting chairman. In early March, 16 Senate Democrats, including Senators Markey and Warren, urged President Trump to continue FERC's "long tradition of bipartisanship" in filling the vacancies, but the administration has been slow to fill federal openings, including those on FERC.
By not responding to the concerns of elected officials the two remaining members may be stalling as this and other pipeline projects move forward. Whatever their motivation, two appointed officials should not ignore the concerns of three elected officials representing the interests of Berkshire residents.
While FERC did raise concerns about the pipeline project entering the Berkshires from New York and crossing the state, it is probable given FERC's history that the project would have been approved had not Kinder Morgan abandoned it. It seems unlikely that FERC will block the project in the Otis State Forest, which has survived court challenges.
Should the project go forward, the responsibilities of Kinder Morgan and its Tennessee Gas subsidiary will continue as well. Native American sites and historic designations must be taken serious and protected. Pipeline leaks could be devastating in the state forest. The industry has responded to past leaks with upgrades in technology and we would expect that Tennessee Gas employ the best available technology and monitor the pipeline carefully.
There is legitimate concern among residents and environmentalists about the fate of the state forest in general and Spectacle Pond in particular, and Tennessee Gas must respect the rights of both to monitor the pipeline process within reasonable limits. Obviously, civilians cannot wander through a hazardous construction site, but by the same token, private security firms hired by Kinder Morgan can't patrol the state forest as if their employers own it. Should there be protests of tree-cutting conducted outside the site of the expansion, we would expect security to respect their constitutional rights and not attempt to intimidate or move the protesters.
Conflicts among pipeline companies, environmentalists and citizens are inevitable and it is up to government agencies like FERC to seek a balance, however difficult that may be. When FERC — specifically its two remaining members — fails to respond to legitimate questions from elected officials and a reputable environmental group, it is failing that responsibility.