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Columnist Kathryn R. Eiseman: Berkshire Gas must update business model

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Friday, July 21, 2017

We’ve known for some time that the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) views the world through the gas industry’s goggles, so this month’s “The Company Knows Best” order, approving the Berkshire Gas long-range forecast and supply plan, came as no surprise.

The DPU has no qualms about the company’s plan to put off any resolution to its moratorium on new or expanded gas service in the Pioneer Valley indefinitely — or, more precisely, Berkshire Gas’ plan to maintain the moratorium until it receives regulatory approvals for a major new pipeline or liquefied natural gas storage facility, designed to more than double gas use in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

If anything, the surprise is that, even as the DPU accepts the company’s forecast and supply plan — hook, line and sinker — the order does acknowledge and incorporate some of the recommendations raised by experts retained by the towns of Montague and Deerfield for the planning proceeding.

Notably, the DPU encourages Berkshire Gas “to engage all of its dual-fuel customers to determine whether there is a mutual willingness to enter into arrangements that would free up resources for other firm supply customers to use.”

This is a tacit acknowledgement of a major revelation by Montague’s gas market expert: Berkshire Gas’ service arrangement with Amherst College could be modified to allow the company to immediately lift the moratorium. At times of peak demand, the college can burn oil rather than gas at its dual-fuel physical plant, freeing up the gas pipelines to serve other customers. Thus, Amherst College, which is actively pursuing sustainable energy on campus, also has the opportunity to help prevent a controversial new expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Pioneer Valley.

Montague and Deerfield’s experts recommend several specific measures to resolve the moratorium — which has been in place for nearly three years — but the DPU does not want to see Berkshire Gas rushed into any solution. Even though Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst has been pushing for Berkshire Gas to work out an end to the moratorium for at least two years, the DPU concludes, “We are satisfied that the Company has an adequate action plan to address its current needs.”

Many of us are not satisfied that the DPU has an adequate action plan, or adequately rigorous statutory and regulatory framework, to address our current needs. Berkshire Gas proposes an infrastructure build-out that would more than double the fracked gas delivery capability in the upper Pioneer Valley, at a time when local communities are seeking to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Yet the DPU order states that policy issues regarding state-mandated greenhouse gas emissions reductions and natural gas use are not a subject matter that is well-suited for a gas company’s long-range planning proceeding.

To stay relevant in these times, when there is a push for 100 percent renewables, companies like Berkshire Gas should be updating their business models, and the commonwealth should be enacting DPU reform such as H. 3400, introduced by state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, this year. Kulik, along with some 80 co-sponsors for his bill and a companion bill in the Senate, proposes a more inclusive DPU process, with modernized standards to evaluate the utilities’ decision-making and integrate policy considerations that the DPU currently chooses to ignore.

Natural gas companies could reinvent themselves as full-service energy companies — where energy efficiency is not simply a government-mandated component of their business, but one of many tools that customers can turn to as they seek to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. Local heating oil companies have seen the writing on the wall, and now sell biofuels and efficient mini-split heat pumps. Why not local gas distributors?

The company may know best what it needs as a subsidiary of Avangrid and the international energy conglomerate Iberdrola — along with their sometimes business partner, Kinder Morgan — but Berkshire Gas does not seem particularly in tune with the needs and desires of the communities it serves in the Pioneer Valley.

Given the resistance that a new pipeline — or massive LNG storage (and potentially liquefaction) facility — is destined to meet in Hampshire and Franklin counties, Berkshire Gas would do well to reevaluate its options, even though its would-be regulator has given the expansion plans, and indefinite moratorium, the anticipated rubber-stamped approval.

If Berkshire Gas continues to stonewall when local stakeholders make recommendations, and to view clean energy advocates as ecoterrorists rather than potential customers for diversified services, perhaps the moratorium will take care of itself through the gas company’s obsolescence.

Kathryn R. Eiseman, of Cummington, is director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network and president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc.