Two years after pipeline shelved, opposition groups continue fighting fossil fuel development
"April 20 marks the two-year anniversary of the suspension of a plan to build a controversial natural gas pipeline that would have snaked through parts of the Monadnock Region.
On that day in 2016, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, said it was halting efforts to construct the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, a $5.2-billion project.
At the time, residents and officials in 18 southern New Hampshire communities in the pipeline’s path were fighting the project. People in Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester were among them.
Their concerns centered on the possible environmental and health effects of constructing and operating the pipeline and its infrastructure, including a compressor station and land proposed to be taken by eminent domain.
Local and regional grassroots organizations formed in response to the project — such as the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc. (PLAN-NE), ECHO Action NH, and the N.H. Pipeline Health Study Group — and joined towns in opposition. ECHO stands for Earth and Energy, Climate Change, Health and Habitat and Outreach. Its focus is to promote clean, renewable energy throughout New Hampshire and nationwide, and for the planet a safe, healthy and prosperous fossil-free future.
A little more than a month after the suspension, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. withdrew the project’s federal application, ending the possibility of the pipeline moving forward. The move also set the project back by years should the company decide to pursue it again.
The 419-mile, high-pressure transmission line would have carried fracked natural gas from the shale fields of northern Pennsylvania to a hub in Dracut, Mass.
And with that, PLAN-NE, which is based in Massachusetts, ECHO Action and the N.H. Pipeline Health Study Group could have just stopped there. But they didn’t. The three groups have continued to remain involved in fighting policy changes favoring fossil fuels and projects across New England.
“Since my eyes have been opened to the role of fossil fuels in the acceleration of climate change, I cannot stop in my efforts to increase awareness everywhere,” said Susan L. Durling, a founding member of ECHO Action and a member of the study group.
Durling, a retired nurse, and ECHO Action co-founder Stephanie Scherr, a middle and high school science teacher, along with other volunteers, have continued to operate the organization.
Kinder Morgan suspended the NED project, it said, because it lacks customers either buying, or seeking to buy, space on the pipeline.
Liberty Utilities, which is New Hampshire’s largest natural gas utility, had signed on to buy natural gas from the pipeline, and had plans to expand its own infrastructure once the project was complete.
Without the NED pipeline, Liberty Utilities is proposing smaller natural gas infrastructure projects that, over time, could build into something larger, Scherr said.
Those projects include converting Keene’s decades-old propane-air distribution system to natural gas, building a natural gas pipeline in Lebanon and Hanover supplied by a facility near the Lebanon landfill, and building a pipeline to connect natural gas infrastructure in Stratham and Manchester.
The latter of the three projects is called Granite Bridge, with the proposed pipeline running along the N.H. Department of Transportation’s right-of-way for Route 101. It would also include the construction of a storage facility for liquefied natural gas in Epping.
“We’re really focused on what Liberty Utilities is doing and we’re concerned,” Scherr, who lives in Fitzwilliam, said. “Kinder Morgan pulled the pipeline for lack of contracts, and Liberty Utilities is still aggressively seeking contracts now. We were still dealing with Keene when the Granite Bridge pipeline came up.”
ECHO Action is reaching out to cities, towns, schools and businesses that would be affected by the proposed 27-mile-long Granite Bridge pipeline, she said.
“We just want people to be able come together in a relaxed environment to ask questions and get knowledge without the pressure of trying to ask those questions of industry,” she said. “We’re going one town at a time.”
On a mission
Volunteers that make up ECHO Action have grown in number since the NED project was suspended. The group is working on attaining nonprofit status, and it has joined a nationwide coalition of more than 200 pipeline opposition organizations, Scherr said.
That contact gave ECHO Action members the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., last year to lobby about matters involving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fossil fuels, renewable energy and natural gas pipelines, she said.
“There has been so much going on that it feels overwhelming, but it all has been really positive,” she said.
They’ve also continued to work with members of other groups in New England that formed in protest of the pipeline, she said. Those groups, especially PLAN-NE, were extremely helpful in providing information in the early days of the pipeline fight in New Hampshire in the fall of 2014, Durling said.
“It felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants with Northeast Energy Direct,” Scherr said. “We have so many more great connections now, and ways to get information and learn from each other. We’re talking to communities, and people are listening.”
Besides ECHO Action, Durling, who lived in Winchester at the time of the NED project and now lives in Hillsboro, has remained involved with the N.H. Pipeline Health Study Group that also formed in response to the NED project. More recently, the eight-member group has been in discussions with the N.H. Department of Environmental Services about expanding its regulated toxic air pollutants list. They’ve also talked with state officials about more frequent measuring of some especially unhealthy pollutants associated with natural gas infrastructure and fracking, Durling said.
Fracked natural gas is pulled from the earth using a process that involves shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals at high pressures into rock.
In addition, group members are awaiting the release of a report by Dr. Curtis Norgaard identifying the chemicals in today’s natural gas, Durling said.
Norgaard is a Boston pediatrician, and his research about the potential health effects of emissions associated with natural gas infrastructure, such as compressor stations, was cited often by NED pipeline opponents.
Durling and other health study group members were also movants in a motion for reconsideration before the N.H. Public Utilities Commission about its October 2017 ruling that Liberty Utilities has the authority to offer compressed and liquefied natural gas to customers in Keene.
The company’s propane-air distribution system serves about 1,250 customers in the city and is used mostly for heating and cooking.
Liberty Utilities plans to convert the system by first installing a temporary natural gas facility on Production Avenue in Keene to provide natural gas to businesses on the road and across Route 9 at the Monadnock Marketplace.
Company officials have said their plan is to eventually have a permanent natural gas facility feeding the city.
The three-member commission granted the motion for reconsideration, in part, allowing just one of the movants, Keene City Councilor Terry M. Clark, to present his legal arguments against Liberty Utilities’ proposal. Clark joined the proceedings as a private citizen, not as a city official, according to the filing. The commission found that Clark, as a Keene resident who lives in Liberty Utilities’ franchise area, is the only one who has standing in the proceedings.
However, the commission left in place conditions related to safety and operational matters that it placed on allowing Liberty Utilities to make the switch in Keene to natural gas.
The matter remains pending before the commission.
Smaller projects, same goal
Meanwhile, PLAN-NE has remained involved in tracking the lobbying efforts of pro-pipeline groups in Massachusetts, President Kathryn R. Eiseman said.
That includes proponents of the Access Northeast project pushing for the so-called pipeline tax on electric ratepayers, she said.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against charging electric ratepayers to help finance pipeline construction in August 2016.
Traditionally, interstate gas pipelines are funded through long-term capacity contracts between the pipeline company and local gas utilities, and ultimately funded by those gas utilities’ ratepayers, Eiseman said.
Intrastate pipelines such as Granite Bridge are funded by the gas utility’s ratepayers, she said.
“In both instances, the companies are allowed to profit off of their capital investment with a guaranteed rate of return on their investment, so the larger their project, the greater the profit (at ratepayer expense),” she said.
In addition, the nonprofit organization is watching for new natural gas pipeline and infrastructure projects being proposed, and assisting concerned citizens in understanding the various regulatory proceedings in those cases, she said.
“The organization was triggered by the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, and it’s certainly why we formed,” she said, “but our mission statement and organizational documents were always looking beyond NED.”
That mission is “to prevent the overbuild of natural gas infrastructure and to champion clean, sustainable energy solutions,” according to the organization’s website. The mission also says the group envisions “a public that understands where its energy comes from and that is actively engaged in energy decisions that affect our communities and our region.”
Since Kinder Morgan withdrew the Northeast Energy Direct project, smaller natural gas projects proposed by companies that sought to benefit from the larger plan have popped up, and PLAN-NE members expected that, Eiseman said.
“We’re not at all surprised now that almost every one of the major gas utilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that were where customers of NED have now proposed their own solutions,” she said.
The smaller projects are harder to oppose than larger pipeline projects because they don’t cover as much ground, and they don’t have as many people aware of them, she said.
Granite Bridge is now the largest, longest and highest-pressure gas infrastructure project in New England, and PLAN-NE has filed a petition with the N.H. Public Utilities Commission to intervene in the proceedings, she said. Intervenor status would give the organization access to confidential records, the ability to ask questions during the proceedings and analyze what is being proposed, she said.
That way the group can make an “informed determination what would be an appropriate solution for the region’s energy needs,” she said."