COG planning board recommends changes to FERC on pipeline approvals

  • Recorder/Paul FranzState representatives from western Massachusetts speak at the beginning of the public hearing about a proposed natural gas pipeline at Greenfield Middle School in front of packed house in 2016. Those speaking included the late Gail Cariddi, D-North Adams, Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Paul Mark, D-Peru.

  • Opponents of a proposed natural gas pipeline protest on Boston Common across from the Statehouse in Boston in July 2014. AP FILE PHOTO

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/21/2018 11:41:30 PM

Franklin County may have been spared having Kinder Morgan’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline built through eight towns in the region, but now the region is getting its say on the process federal regulators use to weigh such projects — and it’s taking full advantage of the opportunity.

The Franklin Regional Council of Governments has responded to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s call for requests to comment on how to revise its review of natural gas pipeline proposals.

FERC’s process “in our experience was unresponsive to community and regional concerns, particularly related to environmental impacts and safety,” the COG wrote in a June 14 letter to FERC Secretary Kimberly Bose, offering eight recommendations on how its gas pipeline review policy should be changed.

The letter, which was signed by COG Executive Committee Chairman Bill Perlman and Planning Board Executive Committee Chairman Jerry Lund, noted that FERC’s “public participation process was hindered by incomplete studies and project changes that were not adequately documented” by the company.

The $5 billion, 416-mile pipeline, which would have crossed Ashfield, Conway, Shelburne, Deerfield, Montague, Erving, Northfield and Warwick on its way from Pennsylvania shale gas fields northward to Wright, N.Y., and through southern New Hampshire to Dracut, was terminated by the company in June 2016 because of “inadequate capacity commitments from prospective customers” and a decision that it was economically unviable.

“We feel FERC needs to hear voices from people who’ve had a lot of experience with things like pipeline applications on what needs to be fixed,” said Tom Miner, a member of the planning board’s Executive Committee. “The intent of that letter was to present those in very reasoned fashion.”

The COG, which spent about $50,000 on legal services and staff time to participate in the FERC process over NED and to assist its towns, called on changes that would require federal regulators to provide technical assistance grants — possibly funded by fees on pipeline applicants — to regional planning agencies and municipalities for staffing and consultants to review information provided by those companies. It also recommended that the environmental impact statement for any pipeline project be prepared by an independent agency, “such as the Environmental Protection Agency.”

FERC should take into account state and federal energy and climate change action plans and policies “when considering whether to approve infrastructure that will increase fossil fuel use,” and it should be required to update its regulations to address climate change and the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the COG recommended. The letter also recommended change to the process to require a more rigorous climate change impact review and analysis of alternatives that includes energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources as well as underused existing pipeline or storage facilities.

The COG called on FERC to overhaul its public participation process so that towns are notified about the proposed pipeline and any route changes before landowners are contacted, with “clear, factual detailed and timely information,” with “clear mapping… at an appropriate scale for each community,” with public comment periods of 45 days or longer after information is submitted by applicants.

A particular problem for Franklin County towns, said Bill Perlman, chairman of the COG’s Executive Committee, was that time allowed for public comment on studies filed as incomplete by the company, which triggered the start of the comment clock, even though the process was slowed by more information needing to be filed.

“When the answers came in, we literally had two or three days,” said Perlman, who suggested FERC change its policy to not start the comment clock until it deemed the company’s report complete.

The COG also called on FERC to prohibit granting approval or eminent domain authority to a project that will export any gas to foreign countries. It called for prohibition of overriding any state constitutional provision such as the taking of permanently protected open space, as well as prohibiting any final approval for a project until all required federal and state permits are granted.

The COG, which recommended more oversight of FERC to make it “accountable to an appropriate body, called on the commission to set the same safety standards for rural and urban locations, and also to consider all existing pipelines or competing proposals serving the same or overlapping areas when determining public need. FERC, as it considers alternatives, should also be required to prioritize existing pipeline routes over projects in virgin territory, the COG added.

“The current FERC process of licensing is geared to the advantage of the applicant,” Perlman said. “Maps they used were out-of-date, the map scale was weird and the pipeline route kept moving, so we never got a clear picture and a complete description of exactly what they were doing.”

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