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Bill aims to protect consumers in pipeline expansions

Would provide for intervening in DPU proceedings, prohibit taxpayer subsidization



For the Gazette
Friday, November 03, 2017

It’s been more than a year and a half since Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. halted its plans for a Northeast Energy Direct pipeline that would have cut through Franklin County on its way from Pennsylvania and New York. And it’s been more than a year since the state’s highest court struck down a ruling that would have allowed gas pipelines to be subsidized by a surcharge on all electricity customers.

Now, more than 120 state legislators have called for passage of a bill to protect consumers from pipeline expansion.

In separate letters Tuesday to House and Senate chairs of the Joint Committees of Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, the lawmakers called for passage of bills that would prohibit the kind of electricity surcharge to finance gas pipelines that was found illegal in June 2016 by the Supreme Judicial Court.

House Bill 2698/Senate 1855 would prohibit utilities from turning to ratepayers to finance interstate gas pipelines while House 3400, filed by state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Senate 1847, filed by state Sen. James Eldridge, D-Lexington, codifies the SJC decision prohibiting electric customer financing of gas pipelines and includes reforms the Department of Public Utilities handling gas infrastructure proceedings.

The Kulik-Eldridge bill guarantees ratepayer municipalities, legislators representing ratepayer communities, and groups of 10 or more ratepayers, to intervene in DPU proceedings and strengthens the department’s review where new interstate gas infrastructure financing is involved, so that environmental and community impacts must be considered, as well as lower impact alternatives.

“This bill addresses a number of issues that arose during the proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project,” said Kulik, who also testified in person by the joint committee on Oct. 26 and noted that the written testimony exceeded more the nearly 70 House sponsors of his bill and had bipartisan support. “Our experience in working to defeat that misguided project made it clear that the permitting and financing procedures for natural gas infrastructure do not align with our clean energy future in Massachusetts, and place unjustifiable environmental and financial risks on citizens and ratepayers.”

The DPU’s rejection of a request by Kulik, along with Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, then-Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, to intervene in its review of the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline was described by Kulik as “absurd” as well as “ridiculous and insulting” for saying that the legislators were not “substantially and specifically affected” by the DPU’s decision at the time, he told The Recorder.

He added in his letter, “We must reform procedures at the Department Public Utilities so that the voices of ratepayers, communities and legislators are fully heard and considered by utility regulators.”

Though now suspended, Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct pipeline and Enbridge’s Access Northeast proposal each threatened to saddle ratepayers with multi-billion-dollar risk while threatening Article 97 conservation land preserved through public investment, private property and Massachusetts’ climate goals, said the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast in a prepared statement about the proposed bills.

“This legislation would address many of the regulatory failings we have witnessed and experienced at the Department of Public Utilities, and would allow the public to have a meaningful role in agency decisions that will impact us for decades to come,” said Kathryn Eiseman, president of PLAN, which formed to harness community opposition to projects such as NED. “The DPU currently believes it can bar municipalities and ratepayers from banding together to participate in DPU proceedings in an orderly fashion with legal counsel and technical experts of their choice.”

The letters were also signed by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, as well as Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Susannah Whipps, I-Athol.

After conducting an “open survey” proceeding this spring to gauge interest in new gas pipeline, TGP wrote to customers on Aug. 31, ” Tennessee has now determined that there is no further need to reserve capacity for a Future Northeast Expansion Project and provides notice that, as of the date of this posting no capacity is being reserved for a Future Northeast Expansion.”