Regional planners seek changes in pipeline approval process

  • NEAL

For the Gazette
Published: 9/30/2016 2:36:24 AM

The Franklin Regional Council of Governments is pressing for the region’s congressional delegation to seek improvements in the way natural gas pipeline applications are reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In a letter to Congressmen James McGovern and Richard Neal as well as U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey (all Democrats), COG Executive Committee Chairman Bill Perlman and Planning Board Chairman Jerry Lund call for changes in the process the commission used in its review of the Northeast Energy Direct project proposed by Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.

“The FERC process was unfair and unresponsive to community and regional concerns related to environmental impacts and public health and safety,” they wrote in the letter. It points to more than $50,000 the COG spent on legal services and staff time to help Franklin County communities on a project “that should not have proceeded to the ‘application’ stage given insufficient demand for the NED pipeline capacity.”

They described the “significant financial hardship” on the COG and Franklin County communities for a project that would have cut across Plainfield in Hampshire County and eight Franklin County towns but was abandoned by the company in April after more than two years because there was not sufficient customer demand.

The letter makes a dozen suggestions to the federal lawmakers for changes in the commission’s process. Among them:

• Require it to take into account state energy and climate-change action plans as well as federal policies on global warming and energy when it considers infrastructure that would increase fossil fuel use.

• Require it to consider the capacity of all existing or proposed competing gas pipelines that would serve the same or overlapping markets when determining need, and setting priorities for pre-existing pipeline routes rather than new routes when considering alternatives.

• Require it and applicants to conduct more rigorous analysis of climate change and alternatives that include energy efficiency and renewable sources, and consider underutilized existing pipelines and storage facilities.

• Prohibit it from granting eminent domain authority for pipelines that will export any gas.

• Prohibit it from granting any pipeline approvals until all required federal and state permits have been approved for a project.

• Require a public health impact assessment for any pipeline or related facilities as part of the application process, and require that environmental impact statements for projects be prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency or other independent agency.

• Overhaul the public participation process to require that applicants notify municipalities before contacting landowners, and provide “clear, factual, detailed and timely information” about routes and impacts, with at least 45 days allowed for public comment after submission of information.

Other suggestions included prohibiting the commission from overriding any state constitutional provision, requiring it to provide technical assistance grants to regional planning agencies and communities, mandating that pipeline safety requirements be uniform for rural and urban areas and making the federal agency more accountable “to an appropriate body,” as well as requiring it to update its regulations to address climate change and cut dependence on fossil fuels.

Planning Director Margaret Sloan said she has been in contact with aides to the legislators about setting up meetings with the COG and other regional planning agencies around the state about changes they are willing to pursue.

Citizen participation

The letter also expresses support for federal legislation to fund an Office of Public Participation and Consumer Advocacy under provisions of the Federal Power Act to help citizen participation in permitting natural gas storage and infrastructure.

During review of the Northeast Energy Direct project, which would have crossed Ashfield, Conway, Shelburne, Deerfield, Montague, Erving, Northfield and Warwick, and initially Orange as well, the COG and many of the affected towns criticized the process for not allowing the public sufficient information and time for input on issues they felt were not being addressed by project proponents.

“In my opinion, the concerns raised by FRCOG about gas pipeline regulations are genuine and reasonable,” Neal said. “The federal regulatory process is extraordinarily complex and any recommendations to improve these measures should be given serious consideration. I welcome this discussion about how FERC’s rulemaking can be more fair and transparent to local communities, and look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to make these legitimate proposals heard.”

McGovern said he was looking forward to working with the COG “to make sure that our communities’ voices are heard and that Massachusetts families always have a say in our state’s energy future.”

He added, “Massachusetts has a proud tradition as a leader in clean and renewable energy and that wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of grassroots activists in Franklin County and across the state. We need a forward-looking energy policy and that can only happen if we have a fair and open approval process on new energy projects.”

State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who met last fall with commission officials in Washington, D.C., to register concerns about the process for reviewing pipeline applications, could not be reached for comment about the letter.

But following the talks last fall, Rosenberg commented on a “pretty universal” tension that states are starting to wrestle with between energy regulations rooted in the past and emerging, forward-looking energy policies.

“Very few states have made very real progress in how to align the two,” he said at the time. “The left foot and the right foot are often heading in opposite directions ... which is not a good idea if you want to succeed in creating a green energy future.”


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