Editorial: Lawsuit seeks accountability on regional gas moratorium

Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Last June, the Northampton City Council called on natural gas distributors to prove they can’t move enough of the fuel due to inadequate pipelines. The council acted after Columbia Gas and Berkshire Gas stopped taking new customers.

A council resolution asked the companies to “embrace complete transparency” and share engineering and financial information. The request went unanswered. “We have heard lots of silence,” said Councilor Ryan O’Donnell, one of its authors.

A new lawsuit may pry answers loose. But given how long it can take for civil actions to advance, the case may not provide timely revelations as federal regulators review a proposed natural gas pipeline through Massachusetts.

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of Tofino Associates LLC of Hadley against Berkshire Gas, comes weeks after a study commissioned by the state attorney general questioned the need for the Tennessee Gas Pipeline’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct project, under consideration by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The suit filed last week in Hampshire Superior Court alleges Berkshire Gas violated a 2004 contract with Tofino Associates to supply gas to 69 homes in Amherst Woods, a development off Belchertown Road. The suit claims Berkshire Gas provided connections to just 35 homes. Others with lots in the subdivision have been refused service by the company, the plaintiff claims, undermining the value of their land. Tofino Associates itself owns property and homes in Amherst Woods it claims to be worth less than if the contract had been fulfilled.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Thomas Lesser, seeks relief for his client including damages, costs and legal fees. But in comments about the case, Lesser suggested the fight is also for information.

“If it turns out they have adequate gas to supply us,” he said, speaking of the company and his client, “then they have adequate supply for others.”

The legal discovery process will interest people affected by the moratorium, as well as those who question gas company motives.

Berkshire Gas stopped taking new customers a year ago in Franklin County, then extended the ban to the Amherst area. It draws its supplies from a line that runs from Southwick to Greenfield. It said the moratorium would remain until the new NED pipeline goes into service. Columbia Gas, which receives natural gas from a spur line connecting Agawam to Southwick, halted new connections a year ago.

A Berkshire Gas spokesman has said the company acted because an existing pipeline could not carry enough gas to supply new customers. Natural gas is a popular choice because of its price and efficiency.

But critics of the proposed pipeline note that Berkshire Gas’ parent company, UIL Holdings Corp., has invested in Kinder Morgan’s pipeline project. Given that financial connection, it is fair to ask whether Berkshire Gas is truly unable to get gas to customers, or whether it is playing on fears of a spotty energy supply, thus hedging its bet on the pipeline’s approval.

It will be at least three years before a new pipeline is operational, assuming it wins approval. In the meantime, limited access to natural gas is affecting development, local officials have said. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg called in August for Berkshire Gas to lift the moratorium, citing its impact on economic growth.

Berkshire Gas will have to defend the lawsuit. But even before that, it could serve the public interest — and build public confidence — by responding to the Northampton City Council’s request for information about the moratorium.


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