Marty Nathan: The $5.5 billion pipeline dinosaur that should never come to life

gazpipeMay2015

Hampshire Daily Gazette: Submitted photo “Climate Summer Bicycle Riders,” are taking to the roads in western Massachusetts in opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposed natural gas pipeline

By MARTY NATHAN in the Hampshire Daily Gazette

Every day for months I have been seeing Berkshire Gas ads explaining its policy of preventing new gas hookups, citing “pipeline capacity constraints” limiting gas availability. My understanding of gas supply is fuzzy, though I suspected from the first that any time pipelines are being mentioned by energy companies in western Massachusetts, Kinder Morgan is probably behind the curtain.

Then a couple of weeks ago I heard mention by a Northampton official that barriers to new gas hookups are hindering development of key projects in the town.

The moratorium strategy is being adopted not just by Berkshire Gas in Franklin County and in Amherst, Hadley and Hatfield, but as well by Columbia Gas in Easthampton and Northampton. The Hampshire County towns for both companies are all fed by the Northampton Lateral of another Tennessee Gas pipeline in southern Massachusetts.

Thus the new Pleasant Street affordable housing project in Northampton, much needed by our community to serve low income people, is being stalled, as is the opening and expansion of small businesses in this lurching recovery from the Great Recession.

To what purpose?

These two LDCs have applied to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to bless contracts (whose details and pricing are secret) to acquire natural gas from the Northeast Direct which, if built, will pass from Wright, New York, to Dracut. Columbia Gas has said that it needs 114,000 dekatherms/day to replace existing contracts that it plans to get out of and to cover projected growth.

It says that without the new NED gas delivery, its customers will suffer from shortages.

The problem is that the only consumer demand that Columbia is looking at is that occurring on “design” or peak demand days — in the middle of the winter, when the furnace in every house is chugging and electrical output, much based now on the burning of natural gas, is high.

Though never explicitly stated in their filings or press releases, yearly peak days can be counted on the fingers of one hand. On all other days, supply well-surpasses demand.

On design days there are alternatives — either shipped in or locally stored liquefied natural gas or gas bought on the open market, which can and should be a part of any distributer’s plan. In Amherst, specific temporary stopgap measures have been proposed for the design days, till long-term answers have been implemented.

A similar analysis could be done for all the other affected towns.

Yet Columbia, Berkshire and Cape Gas companies have ignored those options and thrown their lot in with Kinder Morgan, stating that the building of the pipeline is necessary for energy security for the Commonwealth. This is convenient for Kinder Morgan, which must make a case for such need: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to whom it has applied for permission to build the pipeline requires that there be local (i.e. Massachusetts) service provision in order to OK the project.

The truth is, though, that the main market for the NED fracked gas is overseas. From Dracut it will be sent to Nova Scotia and then across the Atlantic. There simply is not enough demand in the U.S. to absorb the enormous amount of frackable gas in the Marcellus Shale and prices (and therefore profits) have plummeted.

Critics in the know say the LDCs projections of local demand are phony, that Columbia Gas is choosing to break other contracts to substitute the NED and overstating the growth in regional demand. They hold that companies are vastly understating the amount of gas that could be saved by truly aggressive energy efficiency methods and conversion to renewables.

Just plugging the leaks in Boston’s old gas pipes alone could save 41,000 dekatherms a day. No one has yet studied Springfield or Holyoke, both cities served by Columbia Gas.

The distributors then back up their narrative of unmet local need with the moratorium, creating a crisis that threatens community development and punishes towns, many of whom have taken a stand against the environmentally destructive NED. The moratorium is being implemented unilaterally and without oversight. It verges on extortion of the communities Columbia and Berkshire Gas are by law dedicated to serve.

It is very important that we do not submit, but that we soberly assess the benefits and harms of new carbon infrastructure like the NED in a time when there must be a profound energy shift to conservation and renewables.

No matter what Columbia and Berkshire Gas say, the $5.5 billion to build this destructive dinosaur would be better spent in effecting that shift.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.