Editorial: Encouraging that Columbia Gas sees end to moratorium

  • Stephen H. Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, pledges to work closely with communities on projects needed to increase capacity to lift the moratorium on new customers in Northampton and Easthampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/14/2017 7:05:41 PM

We are encouraged that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts forecasts ending by 2021 its moratorium on new customers in Northampton and Easthampton, and pledges to work closely with communities in Hampden and Hampshire counties on the projects needed to achieve that goal.

Columbia earlier this month announced details of its five-year forecast and supply plan filed with the Massachusett Department of Public Utilities, and described plans for five relatively small-scale projects to add or replace pipelines and improve a compressor in Agawam. Among them is six miles of new 12-inch pipeline between Agawam and Holyoke, called an alternate backfeed and expected to cost $24 million, which would allow the moratorium to be lifted.

The gas company’s plan also emphasizes its commitment, announced earlier this year, to find and fix leaks in its pipes. “Repairing leaks and replacing aging infrastructure are critical components of our overarching commitment to improve safety, reduce methane emissions and modernize our local distribution system for the customers and the communities we serve,” said Columbia Gas president Stephen H. Bryant.

He also promised to hold informational sessions throughout the projects. “There are lots of discussions to be held and options to be considered. We look forward to working with our customers, elected officials, communities and environmental partners to create an even safer and more reliable gas system in the Greater Springfield area.”

The DPU review of Columbia’s forecast and supply plan is expected to take up to a year, and then the individual project proposals will be filed for approval. Additional state agencies, including the Massachusetts Siting Facility, also will be involved. If the gas company’s plan goes smoothly, it would lift the nearly three-year-old moratorium in Northampton and Easthampton perhaps by 2020, but more likely by 2021. Columbia now has about 13,500 customers in the two cities.

While we hope the moratorium ends sooner rather than later, at least Columbia has a plan in place to again take on new customers. That is a significant step ahead of Berkshire Gas Co., which is still mired in studying how to bring an end to its own moratorium barring new or expanded service in Amherst, Hadley and Hatfield in Hampshire County and Deerfield, Greenfield, Montague, Sunderland and Whately in Franklin County.

The DPU in July approved a long-term supply plan for Berkshire Gas without requiring the company to end its three-year-old moratorium. The Columbia solution will not help Berkshire Gas, which had been depending on the controversial Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Energy Direct project that was canceled in 2016 due to insufficient demand for the volume of gas it would transport. Its end came after strong opposition by environmentalists and local officials.

“Once that project was canceled, Berkshire was not left with a good option,” Bryant said in an interview with the Gazette.

Bryant said he took lessons from the failed attempt by Tennessee Gas to build a $5 billion pipeline, which would have crossed Plainfield and eight Franklin County towns on its way from Pennsylvania shale gas fields to Dracut.

Whereas previous pipeline projects may not have drawn much public attention, Bryant said the NED project “heightened awareness” about natural gas companies and strengthened his resolve for transparency in soliciting questions and suggestions about Columbia’s projects. “We need to hear from the public — what are the concerns?”

Bryant also credited environmental activist Marty Nathan of Northampton, a physician who is on the steering committee of Climate Action Now, with helping to shape his thinking about the importance of detecting and repairing all gas leaks — including those that don’t pose a risk to life or property — when she wrote him a letter last year. Bryant said that raised his awareness about the gas company’s responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In turn, Nathan said that though she continues to have issues about relying on natural gas, she values her work with Bryant and his understanding about the impact of leaks on the environment. “Columbia Gas has become a leader in the Northeast, where a huge portion of the problems are,” she said.

We appreciate the commitment by Columbia Gas to increase the supply of natural gas in the region while exercising environmental responsibility, and we urge state officials to review its plans as soon as possible.

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