Legislators raise questions about state officials participating in closed-door meetings on natural gas pipeline development

Last modified: Saturday, June 28, 2014
The report last week that New England state administrators met in closed-door sessions with energy business leaders to craft a plan for billions of dollars of natural gas pipeline development to be passed onto utility ratepayers is raising eyebrows — and further questions — among some area lawmakers.

“That’s huge,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who met last week with 19 other legislators along the route of a Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. plan that would cross the state.

The meeting coincided with a set of documents released by the environmental advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation that detail close involvement by electric and gas utilities in developing a plan for financing projects such as the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Energy Direct project that would cross Plainfield in Hampshire County and nine Franklin County towns, including Deerfield, on its way from Pennsylvania and New York to Dracut, north of Lowell.

The Conservation Law Foundation criticized what it called a “closed-door process” by the quasi-governmental consortium, called New England States Committee on Electricity, and asserted it has failed to fully examine the environmental and economic ramifications of endorsing pipelines and new transmission lines through the region. The regional plan by NESCOE, of which Massachusetts Public Utilities Chairwoman Ann Berwick is a member, has been backed by the region’s six governors.

“We’re going to start pushing on this,” said Kulik, adding that legislators plan to look into the DPU process for considering any petitions by Tennessee Gas Pipeline to require access to property along the pipeline route where landowners have refused to grant it for testing.

At a Pepperell meeting recently, a pipeline company spokesman said it may proceed with its preliminary filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission even before completing surveys of all properties along the route, according to several people who attended that session.

“We’re really puzzled now that the company says they may skip that step and go to (the federal government) for eminent-domain authority or permission to enter a property,” said Kulik. He added that legislators have another meeting with pipeline company representatives in future weeks.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said the Conservation Law Foundation document release “is adding a lot more light. There’s been a lot of emotion expressed, with a lot of generalized impressions. This has some real bite because it’s detailed.”

But while he said the revelations are “helpful,” he backed away from suggesting it might affect anything.

“We’re still sorting out how much power each side has,” said Rosenberg. “It’s fairly complicated by the fact that power on the state (administration) side is tipping in the direction of the proposal. We’re still trying to figure out why, and how they got to that point, and what they can or can’t do and what anyone else can or can’t do that will affect either federal or state decision-making.”

Rosenberg cautioned, “It appears the federal side is so strongly weighted toward favoring the industry, we can’t expect much change there. The state side has a broader set of responsibilities, with a balance involving supply to meet the needs of the economy and public health and safety, as well as environment and the desire to cut energy demand through renewables and efficiency.”

Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, pointed out that a two-thirds vote by the Legislature would be needed to allow a pipeline to cross land that has been environmentally protected using taxpayer money, although there are questions of what role eminent domain “for the greater good” would play.

Given that one of the Conservation Law Foundation’s criticisms has been that a thorough economic and environmental analysis has not been part of NESCOE’s plan laying the groundwork for a pipeline, she has asked whether there could be a requirement to prove that it is needed.

“Fundamentally, it should be done,” she added.

Also last week, U.S. Rep. James McGovern of Worcester wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s acting chairwoman for an explanation of the process by which it could consider any applications by the region’s electric system operator to change its tariff structure to allow electricity customers to be charged for new utility infrastructure.

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