Natural gas: Massachusetts is ground zero for Northeast's pipeline fight

Foes say the proposed 180-mile pipeline would harm Massachusetts' pristine forests and scarce farmlands. Proponents say the natural gas would replace dirtier fuels and stabilize winter heating costs.

By , Staff writer

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    Opponents of a proposed natural gas pipeline protest on Boston Common across from the State House in Boston on July 30, 2014. Energy company Kinder Morgan has proposed the $3.75 billion extension of its northeast pipeline through Massachusetts and says will provide clean-burning natural gas to the northeast.
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Tom Clark, whose family has battled bugs, hungry deer, and early frosts for nearly a century in their peach and apple orchards in the rural western Massachusetts town of Deerfield, now faces a new foe in this area: the natural gas industry.

The Clarkdale Farm sits on a terraced hillside on the route of a proposed 180-mile pipeline to be constructed as early as 2018, running from eastern New York to a transmission hub in the Bay State’s northeastern corner. The pipeline, which will carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Fields across the seam of northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, is drawing intense fire from local landowners, environmental activists, and concerned citizens across the region.

They say the construction of new fossil-fuels infrastructure is a step in the wrong direction in an era of increased wind, solar, and hydropower. They also say the pipeline, which will open up a 50-foot-wide gash across Massachusetts, will harm the state’s most pristine forests and increasingly scarce farmlands.

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“There’s two ways to look at it,” says the gruff, thick-bearded farmer. “We’re losing 400 to 600 apple and peach trees. We’re directly impacted. But look down the road 50 years, and look at the methane coming out of fracking. Think of the chemicals going into the ground. Think of the environmental harm.”

The so-called Northeast Energy Direct pipeline by Kinder Morgan, Inc., isn’t the only proposed pipe under fire in the Northeast. In Maine and parts of northern Vermont, protesters have agitated for years against a proposal to ship tar-sand oil along a pipeline from Montreal to South Portland, Me. And earlier in July, the middle-class port city made national headlines when it passed an ordinance banning the exportation of the product.

A similar effort is underway in the Green Mountain State’s Champlain Valley, where residents have agitated throughout July against a shale oil pipeline planned there. And protesters briefly interrupted the construction of a small connector gas line in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 26.

There’s little doubt, however, that Massachusetts is organizational ground zero in the Northeast’s pipe fight – at least when it comes to shale. Dozens of towns have already passed measures opposing Northeast Energy Direct, many with near unanimity. A march involving 1,500 Bay Staters concluded at the State House July 30, when activists delivered 10,300 signatures opposing the project. Two days earlier, three environmental advisers to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) resigned their posts to protest the pipeline proposal.

Most of New England’s governors – including Governor Patrick and Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) of Vermont – have remained mum on the project, though all six signed on to a December 2013 letter encouraging the development of natural gas pipelines in the region for reasons they say are both economic and environmental.

But consumer and business groups are opposing the protesters more explicitly. They say the project will bring steadier heating and electricity to a region where winter energy bills can be ruinous.

They point out that Massachusetts has been shutting down dirty coal plants in recent years. And by year's end, Vermont will shutter the controversial Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, in Vernon. As recently as 2008, the 40-year-old power plant provided 72 percent of the Green Mountain State’s electricity.

As a result, New England residents have been relying more and more on natural gas, which has jumped from the region's fourth-most-used source of electricity in 2000 to its most used today.

The problem, according to pipeline advocates, is that the infrastructure to support this reliance on natural gas during cold snaps isn’t yet there – causing extreme price volatility during the winter.

For example, in the first three months of 2014, Massachusetts residents paid nearly as much for energy as they did in all of 2012, according to Independent System Operator-New England, a nonprofit formed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to oversee the region’s bulk power system. While natural gas prices in New England averaged around $36 per megawatt hour in 2012, they routinely spiked above $200 per megawatt hour in January, February, and March of this year.

“Unfortunately, this winter revealed that the pipelines into New England are more constrained than we initially understood,” said Gordon van Welie, the president of the group.

New England’s five progressive governors also see gas pipelines as a potential boon for the environment, a position that puts them philosophically at odds with the protesters. The natural gas that will coarse through the 36-inch-wide pipe, the governors say, will allow the region to continue weaning itself from what they describe as dirtier sources of energy, like coal and oil heat.

Pipeline opponents, in response, note that fracking has its own unique environmental risks, such as the contamination of groundwater and the emission of carbon-heavy methane during the extraction process. Many also question the construction of new, durable, fossil-fuel infrastructure altogether.

“We need to be mindful of the longer term from a climate perspective,” says Seth Kaplan, vice president of advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “Building pipelines that are going to have useful lives of up to a hundred years? We really need to not be burning gas in 40 to 50.”

At the rally before the Bay State’s golden-domed statehouse in Boston, several hundred protesters – many carpooling and busing from the state’s western reaches, eccentric signs in hand – made their case against natural gas to the musical backdrop of the tuba-centric Frackin Gas Explosion Jazz Band.

More than one protester said that the region’s gas needs had been overestimated, citing a 2013 study by the New England States Committee on Electricity. In that report, the quasi-governmental nonprofit mentioned a “low-demand scenario,” in which advances in energy efficiency – and other adjustments like the combination of heat and electrical power – could make new gas infrastructure unneeded.

Others, frustrated by the notion of their communities acting as hosts for a potentially dirty energy source that could be exported abroad, rather than meeting needs at home, were inspired by South Portland’s effective deactivation of the Montreal pipeline.

“I think there’s potential here,” Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said of pipeline activism. “We’ve been talking to a lot of anti-fracking and anti-pipeline groups together.”

For many residents, however, the opposition isn't based on geopolitics or a longterm vision for energy or the environment. Rather, it comes down, in large part, to a desire to protect one’s land. And pledges by Kinder Morgan that the company will work “openly and cooperatively” have done little to assuage their fears.

“I’m 59-years-old, and I’m in tears over this,” says Deb O’Hanlon, an Ashby, Mass., resident whose 30 acres of forestland are threatened by the pipe. “I have a pond, I have wetlands. I’m freaking out.”

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