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Don Robinson: What’s at stake in pipeline proposal

The dispute centers on a plan by Kinder Morgan, a mega-corporation in the energy business (see its website to get a sense of the Goliath in this story) to build a pipeline through the Hilltowns. It’s got to go through our hills, we’re told; otherwise it would impact “congested areas.” The pipes would carry natural gas from fracked fields in Pennsylvania, up through New York State and Massachusetts, to depots in the eastern part of Commonwealth. From there some of it (not clear what proportion) would be distributed domestically, and the rest sold abroad.

The proposed pipeline would follow rights of way owned by electric utilities. How much ledge would have to be dynamited, how many trees cut down to build trenches for these pipes? What if the pipes leaked, and what if the electric lines sparked near a leaking pipe?

One landowner is an elderly widow. Her property, bisected by electric power lines, is up for sale. The money she had expected from this sale is what she has to live on for the rest of her life. When the project’s surveyors came to town, she was negotiating with a potential buyer. He has withdrawn his offer, citing reports of the planned pipeline.

Meanwhile another local owner is cooperating with the project. He argues that we must have fuel to produce electric energy, and natural gas pollutes less than other fossil fuels. He also would like to have the income that the company would pay to use his land.

This is not an unreasonable argument, but the clash is painful, pitting personal property rights against the power of a huge corporation and the authority of a government bent on promoting its conception of the general welfare.

Hilltown folks can be a bit cantankerous when modernity comes knocking on their door. Last year a plan to build windmills along a ridge near the center of town made many residents shudder. Some opposed the visual impact. Others cited the irritating flapping sound that huge windmills make, and the mess from installing and maintaining these devices. Supporters replied that wind power, whatever its annoyances, is better than coal or nukes. Local folks were ready for that one. It would be far better, they said, to reduce our reliance on electricity.

Where do these arguments leave us? The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution points the way to one possible resolution. It incorporates the ancient doctrine of eminent domain, with two restrictions: any taking of private property must be for public use, and the owner of the property must be given just compensation. Note also that the government may delegate its power of eminent domain to private corporations, particularly public utilities.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the doctrine of eminent domain as a principle of American constitutionalism. It held that private property can be taken by a government entity (in that case, the city of New London, Conn.), even if the intention was to transfer it to a private developer, so long as the intended use would serve a public interest (increasing municipal revenues).

In the present case, the intention of the taking would presumably be to ship natural gas in support of the federal government’s domestic and foreign policies.

As this drama plays out over the coming months (and years?), leading actors will confront one another in a bewildering succession of arenas: at town meetings and ad hoc gatherings, in courts and legislatures, before municipal, state and federal agencies. One looming confrontation, for example, is a hearing before the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, scheduled for May 15 in Greenfield. Kinder Morgan has been invited to send a representative, but has not yet replied.

Watch what happens as this controversy over the gas pipelines unfolds. Is it about property rights or the national interest? Natural gas is the energy source of the moment: cheap (relatively), clean (relatively), and abundant (particularly if we accept fracking). The developers will contend that to stimulate the economy (jobs!), supply our friends (in Europe and Asia) and frustrate our enemies (Russia), we need to produce as much natural gas as we can.

Will these arguments overwhelm and drown out the voices representing environmental concerns and the plight of a widow trying to sell her property?

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

Legacy Comments4

And Pfizer pulled out of the New London, CT development. Nice job screwing the little guy.

I'm saddened to read this in the pages of the Hampshire Gazette. For one thing, every community along this route is "ground zero". You shared two personal experiences among 900 or so landowners affected by this proposal. There are many variables involved among these 900 folks. For one thing, some landowners may have a good deal of property and be perfectly comfortable with a high pressure, high volume commercial gas line running through their property and will welcome a chance to get some money, feeling they are serving the common good. They may feel that this circumstance is exactly what was intended when eminent domain was established for electricity and for natural gas decades ago Other property owners have this running very close to their homes, and are in danger of losing their complete property value, since insurance companies may be unwilling to provide insurance if this runs close to a home, or they may be saddled with enormous insurance costs that will not be covered by the fees most often determined as recompense. Or they may be unable to sell their properties. Another concern that some folks have is that this gas is not scented, and contents are often "simple asphyixiants". When the pipeline leaks, this can lead to more or less instant death. This can drift in clouds on a property. Many property owners express fear that their children or grandchildren will be at risk, and that medical care is scarce in their communities in the event of leaks or explosions. Some folks, who have people coming to their property for commercial reasons, are worried about liability to their property is unwittingly exposed, even if standing away from the immediate area. Some folks are terrified when they learn about the blast zones involved when a thirty to thirty six inch pipeline explodes. Some folks don't care one way or another. Some folks aren't affected, so this can, evidently, be used for some form of "entertainment". The sad feature of your article is its tone of salivation over conflict. It would be refreshing to read a reporter, or writer, who is interested in digging into facts, rather than engaging in the kind of splitting and conflict mongering that characterizes mainstream "news". This concern really doesn't need your superficial punditry, singling out one community and putting two personal circumstances in opposition. These are weighty matters and this is NOT a political situation. It is a story about citizens of our state attempting to respond to the sudden news of this and gain as much information as they can. The people I've spoken with are quite determined not to get into discussions or hate mongering among their neighbors. If anything, they are quite respectful of the decisions of others and are seeking consensus, even if consensus doesn't go their way. You could have done a real service in getting more information and a deeper read on these matters. Instead, you pick on one town among many, and use some very personal stories that should not have been singled out. This reads more like a gossip sheet tale than a serious or humane effort to report or give thought. I'm sorry you choose to write about circumstances that do not really affect you in a manner that seems to invite and promote divisiveness.

There are studies and some currently in progress that show fracking is more harmful to the environment than coal. A recent study on PA wells show that 1 out of 20 wells is leaking into groundwater aquifers. A few members of Congress are asking the EPA to re-open their investigation of water contamination in 4 states (in which they originally said that fracking caused the water contamination, only to reverse their decision after being bullied by gas companies). To say that natural gas is relatively clean is incorrect given all the recent evidence saying otherwise.

Interesting questions - ones that will not have easy answers. The eminent domain case cited above was also interesting, causing much controversy. Residents of NH even went as far as proposing that Justice Stevens property in that state be taken for public use. The New London case has a sad ending - http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/03/20/seized-property-sits-vacant-nine-years-after-landmark-eminent-domain-case/ - the land taken was not used, the residents were moved, and the property still sits vacant. Our government is not the most effective steward of society - and seldom directs its path for the public good...

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