No end in sight for natural gas moratorium

  • The Berkshire Gas service center on Mill Street in Greenfield. ​​FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2018 11:13:32 PM

Berkshire Gas Co.’s four-year-old moratorium on new hookups and expanded service in its eight-town Franklin Hampshire territory will continue indefinitely, the company says.

Berkshire Gas, which began the moratorium in December 2014 in Greenfield, Montague, Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately, and extended it to Amherst, Hadley and Hatfield the following March, wrote recently to more than 300 people and businesses on a waiting list if the moratorium were to be lifted at some point, advising them to seek alternative energy sources.

The company had been studying building a new liquefied natural gas storage facility somewhere in its Franklin County service area, as well as an expansion of its 16-mile distribution system between Greenfield and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline interconnection in Southwick. Previously, it had rejected half a dozen other options as part of the company Forecast and Supply Plan for 2016-17 through 2020-21, which was ordered in July 2017 by the state Department of Public Utilities.

“Regrettably,” the Nov. 16 letter from Berkshire Gas President and Chief Operating Officer Karen Zink says, “our analysis has concluded that the two options … have proven to be too costly for our customers. Additionally, the implementation of either option would likely drive our natural gas service rates well beyond those of competing fuels.

“Consequently, the moratorium on natural gas service will have to continue indefinitely due to the limitations on the capacity of the delivery system,” Zink wrote.

The company had originally said its moratorium would remain in place until Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. had completed its proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline. That project, which had been scheduled to go into operation this month across eight Franklin County towns, was abandoned by TGP in 2016 because of “inadequate capacity commitments from prospective customers and a determination that the project is uneconomic.”

Berkshire Gas spokesman Christopher Farrel, asked whether last week’s letter reflects the Trump administration’s favorable posture toward fossil fuels, said in an email, “Administration policies or local activism were not factors in this determination.”

In an advertisement in Tuesday’s Greenfield Recorder, Berkshire Gas says, “In evaluating these options, the company was mindful that the cost of facilities necessary to lift the moratorium should not be borne by existing customers and that any such investments must stand on their own.”

Each of the two investments, which Berkshire Gas estimated at $70 million to $100 million “to serve incremental growth,” is on a level that it says “nearly equals the value of the company’s total existing infrastructure across the entire service territory and makes the identified solutions uneconomical for customers.”

Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Natalie Blais, who will become state representative in the 1st Franklin District in January, said, “I know of at least one local business that has encountered a significant setback as a result of the moratorium. The Chamber stands ready to work alongside town government to identify innovative ways to support and grow local business in light of this decision by Berkshire Gas.”

Critics of the company and of plans to build the TGP Northeast Energy Direct pipeline said the Berkshire Gas position represents no real change.

“It’s the same story from Day 1,” said Katy Eiseman, director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network.

Ariel Elan, an energy policy liaison for the town of Montague, said the town’s expert witnesses went before the DPU and testified additional capacity was unnecessary and could be met instead through conservation measures and supply management, including a Synapse Energy Economics recommendation to renegotiate its contract with Amherst College and another large customer to have them switch to another fuel at times of peak demand.

The testimony on behalf of Montague, which intervened in the DPU review of the Berkshire Gas forecast, concluded that even “an extreme long-term annual growth rate” doesn’t support large infrastructure projects the company has been considering.

Critics have fought additional infrastructure to expand use of fossil fuels because of climate change.

Eiseman said that while the moratorium by Berkshire Gas, as well as a similar Columbia Gas moratorium in Northampton, may be slowing business growth, there’s a silver lining in that it’s prompted some to consider renewable energy solutions instead.

“From my perspective, the moratorium has forced businesses and homeowners to alternatives,” said the Cummington resident, adding that she wants the moratorium to be “irrelevant and obsolete.”

Staff writer Domenic Poli contributed reporting for this article.

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