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The Explosive Debate Over A New Natural Gas Pipeline Through The Northeast

New York resident Bruce Shenker didn’t used to be concerned about the three underground natural gas pipelines running through his property. He’s grown to appreciate the path created by their construction as a running and cross-country skiing route, and besides, two of them were there before he moved in, a fixture of the landscape just like the trees and eight-acre field.

But after learning about Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct, a natural gas pipeline that’s proposed to run through his land, Shenker started getting worried. The pipeline would be under more pressure than the ones already running through his land and would carry more gas — 800 million to 2.2 billion cubic feet per day — prompting concern about explosions.

“On the benefits side, I found zero benefits,” he said. “Basically, they’re just passing through my land, and they’ll give me a little bit of money, and that’s it. There are no benefits and a lot of risk.”

Shenker’s not the only one. Northeast Energy Direct has drawn critics from across the states it impacts, especially for its large size, which many say allows it to ship more gas into the Northeast than the region needs. The gas is slated for use in Northeastern states and the eastern provinces of Canada, but Kinder Morgan notes that “the ultimate destination of the gas is the purview of NED Project customers that subscribe to project capacity.”

The project is just one of several natural gas lines proposed in recent years as companies try to ramp up pipeline capacity to deal with the natural gas boom. But to residents whose property stands in the way of the proposed route — and for others in Massachusetts and New York who are concerned about the impact it may have on their states — the pipeline represents both the larger concerns that come along with America’s increasing focus on natural gas and the personal struggle to protect local land and quality of life.

“Before we sink more money in gas infrastructure, we have an obligation wherever possible to focus our investments on the clean technologies of the future — not the dirty fuels of the past — and to minimize the environmental impact of all our energy infrastructure projects,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote in an op-ed in August. “We can do better — and we should.”

Disrupting A Way Of Life

Massachusetts resident Rosemary Wessel, who created the anti-pipeline group No Fracked Gas In Mass in February, opposes the project primarily because she’s worried it would upset the natural feel of her region.

“This is a very rural area, a very wild area, and most of the people who I know that live here live here for that reason,” she said. “One of the reasons I moved out here was to get away from industrial influence, and they’re taking one of the most pristine areas of southern New England and running a big industrial thing right through it.”

Northeast Energy Direct would run for 250 miles from Wright, New York to Dracut, Massachusetts and be fed by a supply line running from northeastern Pennsylvania to Wright, New York. Kinder Morgan filed a request to begin Northeast Energy Direct’s application process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on September 15. The pre-filing request came after months of public outcry over the pipeline, including a rally in Boston that drew about 500 people and resolutions passed against the pipeline in multiple towns.

Wessel is fighting the pipeline mainly through her work with No Fracked Gas in Mass, which aims to organize residents against the pipeline and create a central location for disseminating pipeline news, alerts and information.

Others are taking a more literal stand against the pipeline. Shenker, for instance, is one of several residents along the proposed route who isn’t letting pipeline contractors onto their land to survey.

Jim Cutler, who lives on a 36-acre property in Ashfield, Massachusetts, is also refusing to let contractors survey his land, which is along the pipeline’s proposed route. He’s worried that if the pipeline is approved, the old growth pine tree under which his mother’s ashes are buried would be destroyed. He said nearly all of his 42 or so neighbors have refused to allow surveying on their properties.

Cutler found out about the pipeline in March from a neighbor who had been requested to allow Tennessee Gas Company (which is owned by Kinder Morgan) onto their land to survey. Once he did more research into the pipeline, he started doing presentations on it in towns and universities, in the hopes of educating residents about the pipeline.

“What I wanted to do was to reach out to other landowners and explain to them that this was not a political issue; it was a factual issue,” Cutler said. “The intent was to get information into their hands so that they could make their own personal decision as to whether they wanted this thing or not.

He also created the Massachusetts Pipeline Awareness Network (MassPLAN), which is working together with No Fracked Gas In Mass to stop the pipeline.

Though Cutler isn’t allowing surveying on his land in an attempt to prevent Kinder Morgan from determining whether its proposed route is workable, he said he thinks Kinder Morgan may still attempt to get FERC to grant it eminent domain, so that it can conduct its surveys without the landowners’ permission.

“For FERC now to grant them anything — whether it’s eminent domain or certification or what have you — would be really glaring and wrong,” he said. “And we believe that it would be so glaring that it would be very difficult for FERC to do that.”

Massachusetts resident Ben Clark is also worried about the pipeline’s impact on his home and business. He told the AP in July that he would be forced to cut down at least 600 fruit trees from his family’s farm, which is nearly 100 years old, if the pipeline’s proposed route is approved.

“Our very way of life is being trampled,” Clark said. “Our orchards will be ripped apart and our iconic hillside will be destroyed.”

The Right To A Clean Environment

It’s not just private property that’s at risk, either. The pipeline’s proposed route crosses through the Warwick State Forest and the Westfield Wild and Scenic River in Massachusetts. In order to go through that land, however, Kinder Morgan will have to contend with Massachusetts’ constitution, whose Article 97 states that protected land must receive a two-thirds vote in the state House and Senate in order to be used for other purposes.

“You can’t just take that protection away,” Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Massachusetts, said. “If they can’t get the two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate in Massachusetts, they shouldn’t be allowed to go through that land.”

Richard Wheatley, Public Affairs Director for Kinder Morgan, acknowledged in an email that the pipeline’s proposed route went through the Warwick State Forest and the Westfield Wild and Scenic River.

“However, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company (TGP) continues to examine issues relating to avoidance and minimizing and mitigating impacts to resources,” he wrote. “As an example, the Westfield River is currently in review for an under-river crossing, utilizing horizontal directional drilling to bore underneath the river to minimize impacts.”

Wheatley also said that Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company will likely “seek Article 97 authorization” from Massachusetts’ legislature in the hopes of securing the right to cross over the protected regions.

“The company would work with state and municipal public officials to develop appropriate mitigation procedures for crossing these public lands,” he said.

Multiple residents and organizations have sent letters to Gov. Deval Patrick, expressing their concerns about the pipeline. Lenox, Massachusetts resident Jeffrey Clifford, whose home is in the path of the pipeline, was reassured after his letter to Patrick was answered by an aide, who told him the governor had read the letter and was working on the issue. But Patrick isn’t seeking reelection this year, so it’s likely the pipeline issue will fall into the hands of the governor that succeeds him.

Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for Governor, has said she opposes the pipeline, while Republican candidate Charlie Baker said in August he’d prefer to see existing pipeline routes expanded to hold more natural gas, rather than a new pipeline built.

We Don’t Need This Here

No Fracked Gas In Mass is trying to mobilize people in the region to submit comments on the pre-filing so that FERC will see the region’s widespread opposition to the pipeline. The group met with the governor’s office in July to ask for a study on whether energy efficiency programs and renewable energy could meet the energy demands that the pipeline aims to fill, a study that Wessel said the state’s Department of Energy is now undertaking.

“If the state of Massachusetts does this study and finds there really is no need for this — and there’s strong indications that that’s the case — that has to figure in to [FERC’s] ruling,” Wessel said.

There’s no denying that demand for natural gas in New England is up. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data from February, average daily consumption of natural gas in New England has increased by 4.7 percent this year compared to the same period last year.

During a particularly cold spell in New England last year, wholesale electricity prices jumped due to a natural gas shortage. In 2012, natural gas provided 52 percent of the electricity in New England, and as the New York Times reported, that percentage is likely to grow, making the Northeast more vulnerable to an over-reliance on natural gas.

Many of the region’s old coal plants have closed in recent years, making way for natural gas, a fuel that’s, at least in some regards, cleaner than coal.

But critics of the Northeast Energy Direct say the pipeline overdoes it, sending too much natural gas into New England and increasing the chance that some of the gas could be exported.

Shanna Cleveland, Senior Attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, is one of those critics. She told Living On Earth in July that the Northeast Energy Direct’s capacity potential “dwarfs” the expected need for natural gas in the region, which she quoted at around 600,000 million cubic feet (mcf) per day. Northeast Energy Direct could carry as much as 2.2 billion cubic feet each day. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), among others, has said that the pipeline’s large capacity “could lead to the export of natural gas to foreign countries.”

Kinder Morgan’s Wheatley didn’t say whether or not the company had plans to export the natural gas. But he did say in an email that Northeast Energy Direct “is of sufficient scale to address the long-term energy needs of the Northeast/New England and Atlantic Canada” and that customers will ultimately dictate where the gas is sent.

“[Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company] is an interstate natural gas pipeline transmission company that transports natural gas based on the requirements of its customers and shippers. Our customers and shippers make the determination where the natural gas ultimately goes,” Wheatley said.

‘When They Blow, They Really Blow’

Serious incidents include those that cause one or more deaths or hospitalizations.

Serious incidents include those that cause one or more deaths or hospitalizations.

CREDIT: Pipeline Safety Trust

The very fact that the line is carrying natural gas is also worrisome to some residents. Cutler is worried about the pipeline’s potential to contaminate his well, and is also concerned about the compressor stations, one of which he says is slated to go in close to his home. Compressor stations, he said, are often noisy and disruptive for people living nearby.

Explosions are also a major concern. According to a briefing paper from the Pipeline Safety Trust, natural gas pipelines have fewer significant onshore incidents, such as major spills, than pipelines carrying hazardous liquids such as crude oil and jet fuel; however, they have more serious incidents — events that result in death or hospitalization — than other pipelines.

“They’ve got less [accidents], but when they blow, they really blow,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said. “They have huge potential for wide-ranging explosions.”

Natural gas pipelines explosions have occurred as recently as February in the U.S., when a natural gas pipeline blast caused multiple fires and leveled homes in Kentucky. In Manitoba, Canada, a TransCanada natural gas pipeline exploded in January, catching fire and shutting off gas supplies for thousands of residents in freezing winter weather. And in 2010, a gas pipeline explosion in San Francisco killed eight people and ignited a fire that destroyed 35 homes.

Explosions typically happen when a pipeline ruptures, due to stress from corrosion or from being struck by someone digging nearby. Sometimes the pressure of the gas coming out of the ruptured pipeline can cause rocks to fly up around the pipeline, which can cause a spark if the rocks strike the pipeline just right. Natural gas pipelines can, of course, rupture without exploding, Weimer said. Higher pressure does increase the risk of failures and also increases the radius around the pipeline that can be harmed in case of an explosion.

Weimer said that in order to protect Americans, FERC — and the pipeline companies — need to ensure that the routes they choose for pipelines avoid going close enough to people’s homes that houses could be in the “blast zone,” which, depending on the pipeline, could be about a quarter mile wide.

“What really causes the blast zone around these pipelines if they should fail … is the size of the pipeline and the pressure it’s at,” Weimer said. “The companies, and FERC, who’s approving these, really need to start looking pretty carefully at whether they’re picking a route that avoids being in the blast zone of people’s homes.”

If the pre-filing process goes as planned, Kinder Morgan is expected to file a formal application for Northeast Energy Direct in 2016, and if approved, the company would start construction in April 2017. The company has assured residents that “there will be considerable opportunity for public comment during the course of permitting.” Already, Kinder Morgan has held meetings in Massachusetts, and will hold additional meetings over the next year.

Wessel, along with the other residents along the pipeline’s path, plans to make full use of her ability to comment. She said she knows that this is just one pipeline and there are plenty of others, including more in the Northeast, that are up for expansion. As cheap natural gas floods the market in the U.S., companies are scrambling to increase their pipeline capacity around the country.

In the Northeast, for instance, Kinder Morgan is also pursing the Connecticut Expansion project, which would connect existing pipelines in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. Further down the East Coast, the newly-announced, 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. And in the Southeast, the Sabal Trail transmission line would transport up to 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day from Alabama through Georgia and into Florida.

But Wessel is hoping that if this pipeline is stopped, she can work to stop others.

“People often say, you know, ‘why are you fighting this?’ Yeah, this is in my backyard, but it has to stop somewhere,” she said. “We’re trying to fight this as hard as possible to stop this one pipeline, but I’m hoping to take the fight to the level where we can affect some real change across the country.”

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