C. Jeffrey Cook and Donald R. Dubendorf: The pipeline and the Berkshire economy


PITTSFIELD >> We should all be concerned about the closing of SABIC and the ramifications of losing that kind of quality employer and cohort of terrific employees who have been invested in all aspects of our community's life. Unfortunately, the relocation of SABIC is emblematic of larger problems which have brought the Berkshires to a place where the chronic loss (every single year) of population — particularly among families of children-bearing age — now threatens our ability to maintain, among other things — a workforce adequate to serve the region's large and small businesses and — the critical mass needed to sustain quality public schools in many of our communities.

We are at a point where we must make good decisions about the critical elements to get our economy growing. That includes making the right decision about the proposed Kinder-Morgan pipeline.

To date, the public conversation of this project has been confrontational, shrill and highly politicized, leaving on the sidelines many of those who (a) consider the cost of energy a significant problem which must be addressed, and (b) feel intimidated about raising some obvious factors that do not seem to be part of the public discussion. Our community needs to engage in a calm dialogue about the issues at stake.

Just about everyone would like to see more development of sustainable sources of energy and, when feasible, the conversion from fossil fuels to those sources. The question is how soon can those sources provide for our growing energy needs.

Here are some factors that should be more fully considered in the public discussion:

* For well over 60 years, the Berkshires have had extensive experience with gas pipelines, without a significant mishap. Those pipelines run through and around residential neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive areas, including both sides of the Housatonic River and neighboring wetlands. Our population is generally unaware of these pipelines because they are underground.

* Berkshire Gas maintains approximately 750 miles of gas pipelines. Tennessee Gas has constructed and maintains approximately 111 miles of pressurized gas pipelines in Berkshire County. The additional pipeline proposed for Berkshire County is approximately 23 miles in length.

* More than 50 percent of the homes in Berkshire County are heated with natural gas, many owned by working class families. Energy costs in Berkshire County are among the highest in the country and will continue to be that way until additional distribution for natural gas becomes available. As a direct result of our high energy costs, we have seen the continuing relocation of manufacturing operations from the Berkshires to plants in the southeastern United States where energy costs 1/4 to 1/3 of the cost in the Berkshires.

Baseline source

* Both solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy and therefore cannot be relied on as the baseline source of energy for our commercial and industrial users. The undeniable irony is that, because of the current state of energy technology, the manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines have to rely on the traditional baseline sources of energy, such as natural gas, oil and even coal.

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* To most observers, the Kinder-Morgan pipeline is the only near term opportunity we will see to improve the availability of natural gas in Northern Berkshire County.

* Approximately 85 percent of the gas that is distributed by Berkshire Gas in Berkshire County comes from the Marcellus Shale Area in Pennsylvania — which some refer to as "fracked gas". Whether or not the Kinder-Morgan pipeline is approved will have no significant impact on our use of "fracked gas" in Berkshire County.

* Some of the opponents of the pipeline believe that restricting the availability of natural gas "will force" the users to convert to sustainable sources of energy, but that is not what happens. Faced with the reality that sustainable sources are not yet developed to the point of being baseline sources, too many of those users constrain their operations or relocate.

* Many of us are confused about the need for this pipeline. The commonwealth's highest legal officer, the attorney general, commissioned a study with a restricted focus on the reliability of the electric system that concludes the pipeline is not needed. That study, which critics claim looks at "only part of the problem," conflicts with findings of the Department of Public Utilities, and ISO New England which manages the electric power markets. To the critics, the AG's study is flawed because it does not consider the need for more natural gas by utilities such as Berkshire Gas that are unable to meet the increased demand from residents and businesses seeking to switch from oil.

* Our concern with the AG's study is the suggestion that the gap in supply for electric power generators could be filled with more use of oil and liquefied natural gas ("LNG"). Everyone should be aware LNG provides serious transportation and cost challenges and oil consumption is a larger source of greenhouse gases than natural gas.

* During the peak use winter months (approximately 60 days most winters) approximately 40 percent of the electricity generated for western Massachusetts is provided by reversion to coal-and oil-fired plants.

The cost of energy will continue to be a real problem for all those who have been working very hard for many years to reverse the economic and demographic problems which have made the Berkshires among the worst performing regional economies in Massachusetts. And we have to recognize that as much as we all support sustainable sources of energy, we are years away from being able to reduce our dependence on natural gas for most commercial and industrial users.

So the decisions on this pipeline and other energy projects are critical to our future prospects.

That is why we are asking those involved in the decisions to look hard at (a) the challenges we face in the Berkshires, and (b) our actual experience with the construction and maintenance of pipelines over many years.

The writers are leaders in the Berkshire community.


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