Alison H. Bowen: Is a new gas pipeline really the answer to high electricity costs?

Last modified: Tuesday, April 07, 2015

GOSHEN — National Grid customers read on the front page of the Gazette March 25 that electric rates will drop 26 percent as of May 1, pending DPU approval.

This is good news, given the long, cold and expensive winter. Spokeswoman Danielle Williamson explained: “It’s not a shortage of natural gas that makes the price higher. It’s pipeline capacity constrictions. There’s enough natural gas, but in New England we don’t have enough pipelines to get it into the area.”

However, while electric rates rose sharply in November and are about to drop substantially, she argues for a problematic “fix” to what appear to be seasonal problems.

It’s a cruel irony that the Cape Wind project, expected to provide three-fourths of the electricity needs of the Cape and Islands, just lost required financing due to a lawsuit by Bill Koch and several other wealthy individuals. This project had been underway for 14 years and would have been the nation’s first offshore wind farm. National Grid had signed an agreement to purchase 50 percent of the power produced, up to 1,500 gigawatt hours per year of clean nontoxic windpower.

Instead of this clean energy, however, we now are faced with the Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline (TGP). It will carry fracked shale gas from gasfields in Pennsylvania, across New York, through Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin counties, and southern New Hampshire to the terminal hub in Dracut, near Boston.

This proposed pipeline surely would meet Williamson’s requirements. While Gov. Charlie Baker has said he doesn’t favor the Kinder Morgan plans, he has stated that he wants additional natural gas brought to the state.

Tennessee Gas is now seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to lay a 36-inch diameter pipeline. It would carry up to 2.2 billion gallons of gas per day. This is an enormous quantity of gas, far more than needed here in Massachusetts. Indeed, once the gas reaches Dracut, it will connect with the Maritimes and Northeast pipelines crossing Maine.

An application recently was submitted to reverse the direction of flow through Maine to the Canadian Maritime provinces to two ports which just applied to switch from importing to exporting gas.

Apparently, as much as three-fourths of the gas in this project is headed for sale overseas, at a huge profit to this already wealthy company and its stockholders, a fact not widely known.

All the risks, however, and much of the costs, would be borne by residents along its path.

The pipeline will require a 50-foot right-of-way from Pennsylvania to Dracut, plus an additional 50 to 75 feet during construction. Tennessee Gas selects its route through farmland, forests, wetlands, state-protected conservation land and residential communities. It is very disrupting to residents and homeowners, with some properties taken by eminent domain and others losing much value. The pipeline will be a permanent blight on the landscape.

There is very little “natural” about this fracked shale natural gas. Hundreds of chemicals are forced into the pumping process, including carcinogens such as benzine and toluene, plus neurotoxins and endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Fracked gas is packed into the pipeline under high pressure, making it more likely to leak on route. The chemicals can off-gas at compressor stations constructed to increase pressure and keep the gas moving; these compressors are extremely noisy and brightly lit day and night. Natural gas is methane, which like carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, warming up the planet when leaked, and becoming carbon dioxide when burned.

Obviously, it is a myth that natural gas is a clean source of heat or power.

Existing gas pipelines are notorious for leakage and rupture, even fires and explosions. Running across rural areas, there are so-called automatic shut-off valves up to 10 miles apart.

These can fail in severe weather (as in this long brutal winter), releasing toxic fumes, leaking and polluting soil and water and catching fire or exploding. Fire departments in rural areas are voluntary. Firefighters may not have the training or equipment, skills or knowledge to handle such incredibly dangerous situations.

Who knows how long the natural gas supply will last: Fifty years? Twenty? What will we do when it is gone?

What we need in Massachusetts, and nationwide, is to reduce the need for all fossil fuels.

Solar panels and facilities are sprouting up everywhere, and we need more. We need to work together to save Cape Wind and to develop more projects like it.

Natural gas leaks account for substantial energy loss, yet gas companies are far more interested in building new (at greater profit) than fixing what exists.

We need to build smaller homes and to properly insulate every building people use. These steps would substantially reduce fossil fuel consumption and future energy needs, create an enormous workforce of skilled labor and greatly benefit the economy.

Alison H. Bowen lives in Goshen.


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