Marty Nathan: A pipeline we don’t need for gas we don’t want

Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — I was thinking hard about writing a piece on the planned Northeast extension by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. when we received word from our next-door neighbor that the Northampton fire and police departments had been called to our house. We have been out of town and hard to reach.

Another neighbor’s 12-year-old has been feeding our backyard chickens and had smelled gas on our back porch. To her eternal credit, she ran home and told her parents, who called 911.

By the time the fire trucks came a few minutes later, the gas could be smelled at their house 50 yards away. The neighborhood was evacuated and the street was blocked off as the firefighters searched for and found the leak — a tube connecting the propane tank to our outdoor grill. A rodent had chewed through it, probably just prior to the visit by our young neighbor. We were terribly lucky she had known what she was smelling, had alerted adults and no sparks or fires had come in contact with the gas before it was dispersed. She and the fire and police departments deserve our wholehearted thanks.

I had planned to write about my husband’s and my participation in the kickoff of the rolling march to protest Kinder Morgan’s plans to build the pipeline taking Pennsylvania fracked gas from the New York border at Richmond to Dracut. The march culminated Wednesday in a protest in Boston. (For more information, visit

On July 6 we had joined 50 or so other protesters following part of the proposed route through beautiful Berkshire fields and forests, across streams and marshes.

Many of the marchers were abutters, folks whose land was part of or next to the pipeline route. They were angry and frightened, worried about leaks and explosions that could cause evacuations or even destruction of their homes and farms. I have found myself comparing the incident at our house to what they face. Though propane is not fracked gas, it is close. It is a derivative of natural gas and the petroleum refining process and is similar in combustibility and toxicity. The fact that a leak from a 5-gallon tank through a three-quarter-inch pipe could threaten a neighborhood put the danger to abutters of this high-pressure, 30-inch pipeline with constant flow in a new perspective.

The TGP proposal is part of a massive expansion in recent years of gas and oil infrastructure to serve the fossil fuel companies’ need to distribute and profit from recently developed finds throughout North America, including shale oil and gas and tar sands.

Along with the pipeline construction boom has come increasing numbers of explosions and leaks that have not been prevented by the paltry number of federal inspectors charged with ensuring its safety. A February explosion in a small town in Kentucky levelled houses after a leak from a pipeline similar to what is being planned for Massachusetts.

Leaks from the planned Massachusetts pipeline are made more probable by its thinner walls, allowed because it will run through rural areas — including conservation lands, state parks, wildlife preserves and even over or under the Connecticut River.

The danger posed by the pipeline threatens land values and mortgages, water supplies and communities. My little backyard incident was a microcosm of potential disaster.

But the threat extends far more broadly than affected communities. Natural gas has been called a “bridge fuel” by well-meaning people concerned about global warming and the outsized effects of coal-burning electricity production and home heating on greenhouse gas production. But in fact, fracked gas may be as bad as if not worse than coal. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times as potent as CO2. Methane is extensively leaked into the atmosphere during the fracking process and gas transport.

This is a bridge to nowhere.

And building further fossil fuel infrastructure invites continued fossil fuel use, when we should be eliminating it from our energy diet and substituting conservation, solar and wind.

Though the pipeline is being sold as serving the needs of Massachusetts consumers after a particularly cold (and, considering global warming’s effects, probably anomalous) winter caused rising demand and gas prices. Instead, most if not all of the gas will probably be taken to liquefied natural gas storage facilities for shipment overseas, likely via the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline to Nova Scotia and to Europe.

The domestic market for fracked gas is limited. Instead, though we in Massachusetts will be paying for the construction of this dangerous white elephant via a tariff on ratepayers, we will benefit little, if at all.

I don’t want another gas leak in my back yard and will do all in my power to prevent it. I don’t want a massive gas leak, fire or explosion in Massachusetts or a flood of the atmosphere with the global warming threat that fracked gas poses. It behooves us to do all in our power to prevent that as well.

Marty Nathan, M.D., lives in Northampton and works at Baystate Brightwood in Springfield. She is a member of Climate Action NOW.


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