Editorial: Hard work by citizens helped roll back pipeline

Holly Lovelace puts a blue X on the anti-pipeline sign that was in front of her Northfield home.
EDITORIAL: Friday, April 22, 2016

For the better part of two years, many people who love the bucolic Pioneer Valley have been heartsick over the prospect of a natural gas pipeline cutting through eight Franklin County towns.

As more and more information oozed out about the Northeast Energy Direct project, a groundswell grew against the multi-billion dollar project envisioned to cut through conservation lands, protected forest, farms, orchards and even under the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers.

As concerned citizens and state officials dug into the issues and legalities, many issues surfaced: Should an energy giant be allowed to literally bulldoze its way over local landowners reluctant to relinquish their peace and tranquility?

Did the region need fuel from the pipeline to warm homes and keep power plants cranking out electricity, or was the pipeline's main purpose to supply fuel for other locations (including foreign ones) and boost corporate profits?

Would a pipeline and compressor stations along its route pose significant threats to the water, air, land and people along the way? Was building more fossil fuel infrastructure the best way to advance the state’s green energy aspirations?

And finally, were there really enough customers to warrant the gush of gas such a pipeline would provide? In the end, the answer to that question was no, the pipeline's architects acknowledged in canceling the $5 billion Northeast Energy Direct project Wednesday.

Citing “inadequate ... commitments from future customers,” parent company Kinder Morgan said it had “suspended further work and expenditures” on a 416-mile pipeline that would have carried gas from Pennsylvania shale gas fields and through Valley towns en route to New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts. With the suspension of efforts to build the 1.2 billion cubic-foot-per-day pipeline, many of the questions raised become moot. But others linger, such as whether the state should allow pipeline builders to recoup their investment from electricity customers, what to do about the gas connection moratorium impeding building in Franklin and Hampshire County communities, and whether the state Constitution’s Article 97 trumps the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when it comes to building pipelines across conservation land held in trust by the state.

The many residents who opposed or feared the pipeline are breathing easier today, but many are still advocating vigilance. And others still, like the Mass. PipeLine Awareness Network and Municipal Coalition Against the Pipeline, may continue building their defenses against future pipelines or similar development. And that’s probably a good thing.

Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, who has crisscrossed the state to testify before state legislative and department hearings in his efforts to prevent the pipeline from hurting his family’s 100-year-old orchards, let out an audible sigh of relief when he heard the news. “It’s amazing. Our family is overwhelmed and overjoyed,” he said. “We’re happy to be on the winning side with so many of our neighbors and other committee members who’ve opposed this all along.”

Valley activists can be proud of their civic engagement and hard work. It was heartening to many that their tough questions and persistent lobbying seem to have paid off. “When people work really hard against something that’s not quite right, we actually do have power as people,” said Meg Burch of Conway. “It’s a huge testament not just to the hard work, but the thoughtful, really intelligent work that people did that made a difference.”

We second that sentiment. At the same time, the pipeline battle has shown the importance of government policy and regulation in protecting rural lands from unwanted development. Details of the state’s energy policy are being worked out in the Legislature and regulators are considering whether electricity customers should be forced to subsidize pipelines. Officials like state Attorney General Maura Healey, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Rep. Stephen Kulik — who had stepped up to challenge the pipeline — need to continue to work with the legislative and governmental channels to bolster the state’s defenses against such invasive and unwanted projects in the future.