Proposed pipeline stirs memories of past battles
The echoes of proposed pipeline activity through Franklin County 37 years ago are almost haunting in similarity to today’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline discussions.
The Tennessee Atlantic Pipeline Co. proposal for a 500-mile natural gas pipeline through more than half a dozen county towns between New Brunswick and Pennsylvania, and area residents’ reaction to the way the project was presented, bears striking resemblance to TGP’s planned 175-mile “Northeast Expansion.”
Yet the project announced in January 1977 by TAPCO — a subsidiary of what was then Tenneco, the former Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. — was to allow Algerian natural gas, imported at St. John, New Brunswick, to Milford, Pa. That’s the reverse of the new plan by Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline, fed by the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” of shale deposits in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.
Unlike today’s natural gas boom, the United States in 1977 was still reeling from the 1973 Arab oil embargo. And Franklin County, where TAPCO had plans for its $2 billion pipeline to cross Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden, Colrain, Heath, Charlemont and Hawley, was Ground Zero for the nation’s nascent anti-nuclear movement because of nuclear plants then planned for Montague and Seabrook, N.H.
TAPCO’s project, unveiled in early 1977 with a petition before what was then the Federal Power Commission, would have delivered 1 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas processed at a Liquefied Natural Gas facility much larger, but similar, to one proposed by Berkshire Gas Co. but rejected that January for Greenfield’s Mead Street because of safety concerns.
As towns along the path sought to place articles on their town meeting warrants that spring to study the environmental and economic ramifications, town officials with access to a pipeline map only at the county planning office struggled to get whatever information they could.
“We’ve discussed it at several meetings, and everything is so vague,” said Charlemont Planning Board member Howard Blakeslee at the time. “Nobody seemed to know if (TAPCO) would do it, or what route it would take. Until you find out something, you don’t know what you’re fighting.”
The only local former intervenor in the federal review process was the newly created Citizens Union, a Greenfield-based advocacy group also involved in reviewing electric rate case applications and promoting a public power authority to develop small-scale hydropower. It was largely focused on energy policy allowing the county to control more of its own energy resources in those years following the 1973 oil embargo, recalls Al Norman, who led the group’s push against the pipeline proposal then and who “felt I was having a pipeline deja-vu moment; the similarities (with 1977) were so strong.”
A different era
In the late 1970s, oil prices were going through the roof, and the proposal to bring in huge supertankers through Canada and off-load LNG, pumping it as gas 500 miles, we thought that was absurd,” recalls Norman, who was 30 and living in Colrain at the time. “In talking about energy independence, they were really talking about creating more dependency on an unsustainable supply chain.”
For Norman, it was “the beginning of public intervention on undesirable projects put forward by large corporations,” and his breakthrough moment was when pipeline officials responded to his questions about routing the line instead along a utility right of way by taking him on a helicopter tour west to the New York border “so you’ll understand what we’re going to do.”
Instead of convincing him, he recalls, “I was so blown away by the beauty of this area, seeing deer scattering, and thinking this problem is so wrong, and this land is so beautiful, they should just pack up their corporate bags and go home.”
That was also the reaction of many of the 75 people who packed an April 21, 1977 county planning meeting at which angry residents posed an hour of questions about a route that was said to be “tentative” — even though a Dec. 31 federal decision was planned.
Peter Tusinski of Leyden told Project Superintendent H.E. Degreenia that night, “You’ve probably been getting a little cheesed off at people mentioning the tree factor and the fact that we’re concerned that many of these woods are going to be cut down. I tell you it’s a genuine concern because many of us want to keep our county the way it is.”
Tusinski, a Greenfield native who sees clear parallels with the 2014 approach by Kinder Morgan, told the meeting, “It makes me awfully suspicious when you are already making your application, and then leaving it nebulous enough to say it could be over here or it could be over there, and then approach me a week or so before it’s supposed to go through and say, ‘Hey guess what? It’s going right through your backyard and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it because I’ve got eminent domain.”
Another resident at the meeting, at which county Planning Director Fred J. Muehl balked at members of the public “beating up” on Degreenia and derailing his agenda, one angry maple producer in the audience said that the pipeline’s route would destroy his entire sugarbush.
“We can replace your sugarbush,” Degreenia responded, with the audience erupting into laughter.
“They were pretty brazen,” recalls Richard Pascale, a Colrain farmer who learned about the project when he found that someone had spray painted the trees beside his stone wall. “How could anybody just cut through your land for profit?”
With the release of a draft environmental impact statement in July, TAPCO was asked to consider alternative paths through Rowe, and also along a corridor through Ashfield, Conway, Shelburne and Greenfield that was deemed superior in the September environmental impact statement.
An alternative LNG facility site on Prudence Island, R.I., favored by the FPC, would have required the pipeline to be re-routed out of Franklin County entirely, but the company said the area was too congested.
Petition, letter to Carter
In just 10 days, a combined study planning committee appointed by the towns collected a petition signed by 600 residents and sent it to federal officials all the way up to new President Jimmy Carter, citing “a lack of sufficient information, conflicts within the limited available information, a lack of opportunity for local town participation in the review process, Tenneco’s apparent desire to bypass the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Council, and towns along the new alignment route finding their comment period had expired prior to notification.”
It sought a six-month delay “to allow proper involvement” by the public.
As the process raced toward the Dec. 31 deadline, pressed by the pipeline company’s contract with Algerian suppliers and to have an LNG terminal built, the project bogged down with its Canadian partner pulling out and by a proposed change in the federal pricing policy formula by which the Algerian import was based.
Ultimately, no public hearing in Franklin County was ever held. And ultimately, the Dec. 31, 1977 deadline was not met.
But what killed the TAPCO project, which faced review also by the 10 federal agencies, six state agencies as well as Canadian authorities, was a Department of Energy ruling in December 1978 that importing 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 20 years was not needed.
That had been the main point raised by Community Union at the outset, and TAPCO’s Algerian partner had canceled its contract in July 1978, although company spokesmen said, “We’ve assumed all along that we had a contract.”
The Tenneco subsidiary conceded on Jan. 18, 1979, that the project was dead.
“The biggest issue in my mind is whether the pipeline is needed,” Norman had said in April 1977, pressing for greater energy conservation. Twenty months later, when the federal government ruled against the project, he told The Recorder, “It took almost two years to get a point across.”
Today, Norman says of Kinder Morgan’s plans for a pipeline that would cross nine Franklin County towns, “This is not a new battle ... history does repeat itself.”
Although both sides have gotten slicker, and the Internet allows for greater research on both sides, he says, “People have to make noise in the right places, but also people have to have their facts together.”
Critics of the latest proposal have pointed to world demand for America’s natural gas, concerned that this time around, LNG plants are being planned for export so that gas pumped toward the coast will ultimately raise prices here to world levels.
In both cases, Franklin County would simply be a conduit, with the potential for tremendous environmental damage and little benefit or voice in the matter.
Since the 1970s, recalls Arthur Schwenger, a Heath Pipeline Committee member at the time, “both the companies and the federal bureaucracy have learned where the limits are. If they don’t have to respond to local concerns, they don’t. It was very frustrating for local residents because they didn’t think they had any say, and the company was getting away with a short, or a shortened, time frame for comments. ... The people’s interests were being ignored.”
You can reach Richie Davis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269