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Columbia Gas outlines solutions to natural gas logjam

  • Stephen H. Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stephen H Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Friday, November 03, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Columbia Gas of Massachusetts continues to move forward with plans for a new pipeline to address the supply chokehold that has prompted the natural gas company to impose a moratorium on adding new customers in cities like Northampton and Easthampton.

But even if this pipeline, called an alternate backfeed that would run between Agawam and Holyoke, is built, Columbia President Stephen Bryant said the moratorium could remain in place for another three to four years.

“We cannot add customers until we are certain we can solve that capacity issue,” Bryant said.

Meantime, the gas supplier is also undertaking efforts to fix leaks in its aging infrastructure, which Bryant said demonstrates both a commitment to immediate public safety concerns, as well as longer-term environmental impacts of the accidental release of greenhouse gases.

In an interview with the Gazette’s editorial board Friday, Bryant explained that Columbia Gas this week submitted its biannual forecast and supply plan to the state’s Department of Public Utilities, alongside contracts to allow the company to acquire natural gas from the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, the Portland Natural Gas Transmission Company and Repsol, based in the Canadian Maritime province New Brunswick.

Bryant said he is confident that these agreements will set the stage for meeting supply needs for Northampton and Easthampton by 2021.

The contract with Tennessee Gas is an important first step before embarking on the pipeline project, Bryant said, as Tennessee Gas needs to promise it can deliver what Columbia needs to go beyond the 13,500 customers in Easthampton and Northampton served through the 20-mile Northampton lateral pipeline. That spur pipeline, which connects to the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, has reached its limits.

In April, Columbia announced that it was entering into a memorandum of understanding with Holyoke Gas & Electric to have the new pipeline to serve its customers in Holyoke. This 6-mile pipeline, at a projected cost of $24 million, would free up capacity at what is called the Northampton gate station for at least eight to 10 years.

Bryant said the pipeline is a relatively small project, though the company hasn’t determined the precise route. The Massachusetts Facilities Siting Board would take a first look, a requirement because the line is more a mile-long and carries the gas under more than 100 pounds of pressure per square inch.

Problems in the Northampton lateral pipeline were addressed a decade ago by adding a single-stage compressor. Ideally, Bryant said, a second line would serve Northamtpon, but that is signficiantly more expensive to build, at least $100 million.

A series of five projects are described in the forecast and supply plan. In addition to the alternate backfeed, these include replacing 8,500 feet of the ConEd line in Springfield, compressor station enhancement in Agawam, a 2-mile pipeline loop in Agawam and a new point of delivery in a non-residential area of Longmeadow.

Bryant said he wants the public to be aware of the company’s plans, noting that the moratoriums and the interest and opposition that was generated in Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Direct pipeline project have raised the profile of natural gas companies and their work.

Easthampton Mayor Karen Cadieux said in an email that Columbia Gas has been updating city officials and they are anxious to have the moratorium end.

“We are concerned with our ability to be competitive for economic development if we cannot offer the same utilities as our surrounding communities,” Cadieux said.

Berkshire Gas not involved

If this model for improving the supply is followed, Bryant said there will be no impact on a similar moratorium implemented by Berkshire Gas, which affects Amherst, Hadley and Hatfield, as well as Franklin County towns.

He said a combined solution with Berkshire would be good, as they have a mutual interest in getting gas to customers.

“We have an obligation to provide service at the lowest possible cost,” Bryant said.

The challenge has always been greater for Berkshire because of its distance from the current Tennessee pipeline. Tennessee’s Northeast Direct pipeline plan, which the company halted, would have followed a more northerly route and made an easier solution for the company to solve its natural gas capacity problem.

“Once that project was canceled, Berkshire was not left with a good option,” Bryant said.

In July, DPU approved a long-term supply plan for Berkshire Gas without requiring the company to end its moratorium.

Fixing leaks

Like other gas companies, Columbia is only obligated to repair what are called Grade 1 and Grade 2 leaks, which pose either immediate risk to life and property and must be fixed as soon as possible, or longer-term risks, which need to be fixed within a year.

But the company has taking steps to address Grade 3 leaks that contribute to the build up of greenhouse gases.

“We can’t take that attitude, that just because it doesn’t pose a threat to life and property we can’t be concerned about it,” Bryant said.

Bryant said a letter from Marty Nathan last year, a Northampton physician and member of Climate Action Now, drew his attention to the issue.

Since then, Columbia has cooperated with the Home Energy Efficiency Team and Mothers Out Front on an action plan that seeks out uncombusted methane.

Though a small subset of leaks, only around 7 percent, they represent more than 50 percent of emissions, according to a Boston University study.

Columbia began the year hunting down the largest of these leaks and have continued to repair them when they are identified.

Nathan said even though she has issues with natural gas, she is proud to have worked with Bryant and Columbia Gas.

“Columbia Gas has become a leader in the Northeast, where a huge portion of the problems are,” Nathan said.

Nathan also credited Bryant with supporting legislation promoting fixing of leaks, talking to other gas companies about these issues and being committed to finding all gushers.

Unfortunately, Bryant said that eliminating leaks does not mean there is more gas available.

“If we could solve every leak at the snap of my finger, it would not solve my capacity issue,” Bryant said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com