Columnist Marty Nathan: Abandonment of gas pipeline a win for climate, region

  • In this 2016 file photo, employees of Columbia Gas update a line outside a house in Northampton. gazette file photo

Published: 11/6/2019 5:00:25 PM

On Oct. 11, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts announced that it would abandon its plan to build a 12-inch pipeline from West Springfield to the edge of Holyoke to provide an “alternate backfeed” of gas to Holyoke Gas and Electric.

Building the pipe would have meant Holyoke would no longer have had to rely on the Northampton Lateral pipe that brings gas to Northampton and Easthampton. The company has said that on the coldest days of winter the Northampton Lateral is at peak and it imposed a moratorium on new and expanded gas hookups for Northampton and Easthampton to limit demand. HG&E more recently applied its own moratorium for Holyoke.

We are all learning from impeachment coverage about what it means to put undue pressure to get something for your own profit, and Columbia had promised that, should consumers pay more than $20 million for the new 6-mile pipeline, it would hook up new customers. Look up quid pro quo in the dictionary and you might find a picture of Donald Trump with his withheld Ukrainian military aid alongside Columbia Gas burnishing its moratorium.

Some folks in the region, particularly those in what would become the Columbia Gas Resistance Coalition, recognized at the time the proposal was made that we face a climate emergency and our central task to sustain life on earth is to cut carbon emissions from the leaking and burning of fossil fuels. We saw the Columbia Gas plan as antithetical to that task.

Gas is not a bridge fuel. Methane leaks through the drilling and delivery of gas make its climate toll at least as heavy as coal. The new pipeline would mean more gas delivered to our area and more greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere to heat up our world.

However, at the time that we took up the fight, the reality of climate change was not being factored into most of our country’s more basic energy decisions. When we took our case to some of our savvy politicians, we found that those externalized costs — the public health burden of air pollution and the advancement of climate change — were only hesitantly being considered in municipal energy choices.

The “business as usual” rut was deep. Naturally, we would use “cheap” (for the moment) gas to heat our homes and businesses and cook our food. It took a real leap on behalf of the Northampton City Council, but its members ultimately voted unanimously not to take the deal Columbia was offering.

Instead, it chose to plot a new path within the boundaries of the moratorium instead of accepting the offer of the new pipeline. That new approach focused on conservation and conversion to efficient electric heat pumps and stoves to be powered increasingly by a grid fueled by wind, solar and hydro.

Northampton’s resolution against the pipeline was courageous, and it reset the bar for standards for energy investment. Its passage was influenced, of course, by the explosions in Lawrence the week before, which demonstrated better than any oral argument the other dangers inherent in gas pipelines.

Northampton’s refusal paved the way for Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse to rise as a climate defender, when he declared that Holyoke, too, would accept the moratorium rather than support the new pipeline. His stance was in some ways bolder even than that of Northampton. He did not necessarily have the support of his City Council, yet he cited the asthma rates of his constituents and the suffering already felt by the many climate refugees to his city from Hurricane Maria’s destruction in Puerto Rico. He was backed by Neighbor to Neighbor Holyoke as he took his stand.

With no city clearly demanding the pipeline, the writing was on the wall, and Columbia’s decision was inevitable. It was an historic victory, won by people of principle and vision.

But the fight is not done. There are still four other parts to the Columbia “Reliability” plan. The upgrade of the Agawam Compressor Station should be unnecessary with the collapse of the pipeline plan to Holyoke.

The Pipeline Awareness Project, a member of the Columbia Gas Resistance Coalition, has filed a letter with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission demanding reassessment of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utility’s approval of the contract for this project.

Furthermore, Columbia and its partner, Tennessee Gas Pipeline, are still planning to build a metering station near a Longmeadow elementary school and an enlarged pipeline through Longmeadow into Springfield. The group Longmeadow Pipeline Awareness Group and Arise for Social Justice have carried out a hard-hitting battle to stop this construction. These organizations are members of the coalition that will vigorously support their continuing struggle.

Every day our window of opportunity to prevent run-away climate change grows a little narrower. This fight was a relatively small one in terms of amount of gas rejected, but a historic one modeling what local communities can and must do to fight climate change in routine energy planning. Thank you, Northampton, and thank you Holyoke.

Marty Nathan, MD, is a physician, mother and grandmother and serves on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She may be reached at
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