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Editorial: Why keep the public out of public utility matters?

Last modified: Monday, September 14, 2015

From the earliest intimations that a gas pipeline would stretch through parts of his district, state Rep. Stephen Kulik has proven dogged in his push for an open and complete regulatory review process.

It’s an upfront approach that people in a district that encompasses towns in Franklin and Hampshire counties appreciate, and one that has garnered respect inside the Statehouse. It’s part of a clear commitment to the people of western Massachusetts.

This commitment has shone in Kulik’s interaction with the state Department of Public Utilities in the application by Berkshire Gas, Columbia Gas and National Grid to buy natural gas from the Northeast Energy Direct project proposed by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.

In May, Kulik joined forces with the Pipeline Awareness Network for the Northeast (PLAN) to file a request for full intervenor status in DPU proceedings on whether the area’s utilities should be able to buy gas from a future NED pipeline.

At the time, Kulik said working with pipeline critic PLAN made sense “because we’re representing the same people, we have similar positions on the pipeline and we’re asking the same questions with the DPU: whether the Berkshire Gas agreement is in the best interest of our constituents. My involvement as a legislator helps enhance the application for intervenor status.”

In June, however, the Kulik/PLAN request for full intervenor status was denied by the DPU. Hearing officer Ellen Weisman said the interests of Kulik, PLAN and others were “not sufficient to establish that they are substantially and specifically affected by this proceeding and have a right to intervene as full participants.”

Instead, the DPU said the interests of ratepayers and the groups’ members were represented by the state attorney general.

Kulik found the DPU’s response to be — putting it mildly — unsatisfactory. “I find that incredible to say that citizens and their elected representatives are not “substantially and specifically affected” by this deal,” the Democrat from Worthington said. “Historically, legislators and local governments are commonly granted full intervenor status.”

Faced with the roadblock, Kulik recognized that his efforts to obtain necessary information about the gas companies’ connection to the proposed pipeline required paying attention to what was happening now and in the future. That meant filing legislation that changes the way the DPU decides who is granted intervenor status.

“At the Greenfield DPU hearing on June 11th, I said that I would review the statute that allows the DPU to pick and choose who can intervene. That is what I address with this legislation,” Kulik said. “It takes away the discretion of the DPU to reject intervenors ... I think it fixes a problem, created by this particular DPU, in that it shut out important information in a case that impacts ratepayers as well as state and regional energy policy.”

Kulik and others think that in this case the DPU is moving forward quickly without sufficiently considering the interests and perspectives of residents. We agree.

At stake was an arrangement between the gas companies and the pipeline company known as a “precedent agreement.” In such contracts, gas companies sign up for a certain amount of capacity from a pipeline once it is built. In return, these contracts, which the DPU recently approved, allow Kinder Morgan, the parent firm for Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., to help justify its case for the pipeline before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that ultimately has the say over whether this pipeline will be built.

If approved, Kulik’s legislation would help keep the DPU from straying from its mission to “ensure that utility consumers are provided with the most reliable service at the lowest possible cost ... and to ensure that residential ratepayers’ rights are protected.” Kulik is right to use his elected position to try to change this for the benefit of residents throughout the state. We hope other legislators follow his lead in fighting to better serve the public.


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