In the Arena: Pipeline politics
The absolute worst position for any politician is to have accountability for an issue, but no power to change it.
That may be exactly the situation local politicians find themselves in as the regulatory process moves forward regarding the Kinder Morgan Co.’s plan to string a natural gas pipeline through Franklin County sometime between now and 2018.
“At this point, we’re not sure where our power ends and the federal government’s begins,” state Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg said recently. “That’s something we’re still trying to determine.”
They’d better figure it out soon, because there are a growing number of registered voters who aren’t wild about the prospect of turning largely undisturbed open space into a delivery system for a natural gas line to feed points east. A large group of those voters recently crammed into a meeting room at Montague Town Hall to listen to Kinder Morgan representatives try to persuade that town’s selectmen to allow the company access to municipally-owned land for the survey work necessary to determine the final pipeline route.
The board has already refused the initial request and, to date, hasn’t changed its position, despite a 20-minute presentation that saw the company’s director of corporate communications, Allen Fore, hit on a lot of the themes we usually hear whenever any large company wants to move a controversial project forward. He talked of Kinder Morgan’s desire for a “collaborative” process and the company’s interest in reaching out to the community and the affected landowners (of which there are 18 in Montague), but it was pretty apparent that the majority of the assembled throng wasn’t buying what he was selling,
It was also apparent, based on Fore’s comments during the somewhat feisty Q & A that the only hope Franklin County has of stopping this project is with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a five-member board of presidential appointees which, heretofore, has never met a pipeline it didn’t like.
“What (FERC commissioners) are voting for is a certificate of ‘public convenience and necessity,’ which means is that the federal government has determined that this project is in the public interest,” Fore said. “If that happens, then the possibility of eminent domain does come with that.”
Couple that with FERC Secretary Ernest Moniz’ comments this week on the connection between the rising cost of regional natural gas prices and the lack of New England delivery systems and it doesn’t exactly take a slide rule to figure out how this one is going to go. But even if — or more likely, when — the feds give the green light, I’m still not sure how this is going to happen without flouting damn near every environmental law on the books.
I’m no rabid environmentalist, but as a native of this area and now a Montague taxpayer, when I hear a company official talk about uprooting topsoil, cutting 50-foot right-of-ways through forests and protected farmland and drilling 30 feet below the bottom of the Connecticut River, my antenna goes up. And as Fore spoke, I started to make a mental list of state and federal environmental laws that would have to potentially be waived or flat-out ignored to get this project completed.
Most of the media coverage lately has focused on the potential impact on forest land in Warwick, supposedly protected by state law — unless the Legislature decides to make an exception, which Rosenberg says isn’t necessarily a lock..
“We made it clear to them that they had a very tall order to prove to people that this project is going to be necessary, and get them to accept it,” Rosenberg said. “And I believe it will be extremely difficult to get anything that would require a vote of the Legislature because of that.”
At least one of the 18 affected private property owners in Montague said her farm contains a tract of APR land that may be impacted, even though it is supposedly forever protected from development by state law. Given the topography and water table in this part of the commonwealth, it’s a good bet that this line is going to intersect some wetlands at some point, which are also supposed to be protected. And exactly how does a company drill 30 feet below a waterway without violating the Rivers Protection Act?
All valid questions, but I’ll add another: If these laws can be so easily ignored for one project, “public convenience and necessity” notwithstanding, how can we ever be expected to take those laws seriously again?
This brings me back to our local politicians, who are soon going to be in the unenviable position of having to deal with a public outcry that is just now starting to percolate.
“While we don’t want to drag our feet on this, it isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” Rosenberg said. “It’s current for people because of the survey requests, but the actual decisions and process are going to take another two years or perhaps longer.”
That may be true, but, as one resident aptly pointed out, the time to voice local opposition is now — lest the feds make this decision for us and create a potential disaster not only for our local environment, but the political careers of the elected officials supposedly charged with its protection.
Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.