Proposed Natural Gas Pipeline Across Northern Massachusetts Stirs Up Debate

This week, Deerfield, Massachusetts, became the first town to pass a resolution seeking to bar the company Kinder Morgan from surveying town land for a proposed natural gas pipeline.

“There’s protected farmland in the area, there’s conservation land, all of these things are what make it such a wonderful place for people to live, and I don’t see that there would be any benefit whatsoever to the residents of the town,” says Lisa Turowsky, a Deerfield resident.

Deerfield’s non-binding vote was the first of at least ten motions slated for town meetings across northern Massachusetts in the coming weeks, according to a group that opposes the project. The approximately 200 mile pipeline would bring natural gas through Massachusetts from Pennsylvania and New York. Fueling some of that opposition – hydraulic fracturing, a controversial extraction process. But many opponents are focusing on the pipeline itself, which would travel from the Berkshires to Dracut, Massachusetts. On that route, it would cut across the property of about 2500 landowners.

Jim Cutler is one of them. He walked with me on a wooded trail behind his home in Ashfield, out to the area where the pipeline is proposed to go. We come to a clearing near a ravine. There’s a steep drop off, where the Bear River runs below. Above us is a large power line.

“They can’t put them right under the power lines, they have to go beside,” Cutler tells me.

Before Kinder Morgan can apply for a federal permit to build the pipeline, they need to come out here and survey the land. But Cutler has blocked them, and so have his neighbors, he says. He lists many reasons to oppose the project, such as possible violations of conservation laws and his homeowners’ insurance, even the makeup of the sandy soil in the area. Cutler also has more personal concerns.

“I don’t want to lose anymore woods, and as we walked out here, there’s a very large, beautiful white pine tree that has my mom’s ashes around it, and it’s very special place, and there’s a concern that this operation is going to go through that area,” says Cutler.

Most of all, he’s worried about the possibility of leaks, explosions, or fires.

The project also has it’s supporters. Namely, the Laborers’ Union. Tom Andrews represents local 596 out of Holyoke.

Map of the proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Expansion

Map of the proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Expansion

“It would be huge,” says Andrews. “A $2 billion project does not happen in western Mass., or even come near western Mass.”

The pipeline’s cost is closer to $3 billion, according to Kinder Morgan, and the company says it would bring 3,000 jobs. Opponents have raised the point that most of those jobs wouldn’t be permanent, but Andrews says that’s the norm for union construction workers.

“To us they’re not permanent jobs, but we have to continually look for the next project to go after,” Andrews says.

For all the attention this project’s garnered in western Massachusetts, you’d think it’s the only one of its kind, but that’s not the case. There are another four pipeline expansion projects planned for New England, according to an industry group.

“There’s certainly multiple projects in New England, either expansion of existing projects, or new projects all together that are on the books moving forward to hopefully receive approval and get constructed,” says Tom Kiley is president of the Northeast Gas Association.

One project that would cross Connecticut, Rhode Island, and eastern Massachusetts is even further along in the federal process than Kinder Morgan’s northern Massachusetts line. Plus, the company already runs a sizable pipeline across southern Massachusetts, basically parallel to the new proposal. It cuts through the Berkshires, Hampden and Worcester county, and into Greater Boston.

So why all this expansion? Back in December, all six New England governors called for more gas pipeline capacity, and a tariff to pay for it, in hopes of leveling out natural gas prices they say are the highest in the country. But Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has stopped short of backing this pipeline proposal in particular.

“My expression of interest in having more natural gas isn’t about supporting one proposal or another. There are a number of how to bring more natural gas into the commonwealth,” Patrick says, “but that’s one of the ways we can bring our electricity prices down, so I’m interested to see how those proposals play out.”

Kinder Morgan’s spokesman Allen Fore says the company is just responding accordingly to that executive push for more gas.

Kinder Morgan representatives listen to residents in a meeting over a proposed natural gas pipeline in Montague, Mass.

Kinder Morgan representatives listen to residents in a meeting over a proposed natural gas pipeline in Montague, Mass.

“They are saying it’s important. Here’s a project that we believe, as the industry leader in transporting natural gas, can address the needs of New England, not for now, not for ten years, but for a generation, if not permanently,” says Fore.

Fore is quick to point out that there’s a long way to go before the pipeline’s planned opening in 2018.

“I’m sure there will be adjustments to the schedule, I’m sure there will be adjustments to the route, there will be extensive permitting oversight,” Fore says. “It’s important for people to understand they will have plenty of chance for input and comment.”

Still, Fore says the company plans to apply for preliminary federal approval by October. With full federal approval, Kinder Morgan would have a right to take land through eminent domain. That would likely set off a court process with many landowners, like Jim Cutler in Ashfield. He says his strategy now is to band with other property owners to keep Kinder Morgan off their land.

“Because the fewer people along the pipeline that agree to this, the harder it will be for them to do the project, because they’ll have to go to court for so many parcels, that at some point they will consider it not worth their time and money,” Cutler says.

Jim Cutler near the route of the proposed pipeline in Ashfield, Mass.

Jim Cutler near the route of the proposed pipeline in Ashfield, Mass.

And it’s not just about that old phrase, NIMBY, says Cutler. “Not in my backyard, we say not on my earth,” he says.

So far, 30 percent of landowners have given Kinder Morgan permission to survey, though the company says surveying hasn’t started yet.

As we walked back to his home, Cutler reveals he’s also got a business interest in this fight: he runs a solar panel installation company.

“I’ll be straight out, I see solar as absolutely the future. I’m very passionate about it, and I know it works,” says Cutler.

Whether it’s natural gas, solar, or whatever else, new energy sources are needed, and somebody’s going to profit.