Pipeline Bills Would Protect Consumers

“We must reform procedures at the Department Public Utilities so that the voices of ratepayers, communities and legislators are fully heard and considered by utility regulators," said Representative Stephen Kulik

It’s hard to see why the Legislature shouldn’t embrace two recently introduced bills that would protect us from a future Kinder Morgan gas pipeline.

Western Massachusetts dodged a bullet when local opposition, a state Supreme Judicial Court decision and changing financial currents sank Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct pipeline that would have cut a swath through the region on its way from Pennsylvania to the seacoast. Foes of the multibillion dollar project argued it would have cut through environmentally sensitive lands the state had paid tax dollars to protect from development.

The pipeline posed environmental and health hazards to residents along its route — to provide fuel that wasn’t really needed in Massachusetts or could be provided in less disruptive ways.

The real kick in the gut was that local electric generators that wanted the extra gas supplies planned to pass on the cost in advance to their customers. If the project had failed, those customers would still have taken the financial hit.

Thankfully, the high court refused to allow electricity companies to force on their customers investments in pipelines that those customers opposed.

Now, more than 120 state legislators have called for passage of bills to protect consumers from unwanted pipeline expansion by codifying that court ruling in law and by forcing the state’s utility regulatory agency to listen to affected towns and their legislators.

A bill filed by state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, guarantees municipalities, legislators representing electricity ratepayer communities, and groups of 10 or more ratepayers the right to intervene in Department of Public Utilities hearings on rate hikes, and strengthens the department’s review where new interstate gas infrastructure financing is involved, requiring that environmental and community impacts be considered. It also requires the DPU to consider lower-impact alternatives to a pipeline proposal.

All of this sounds like common sense, but was disputed during the NED pipeline fight when the DPU rejected a request by Kulik, along with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Benjamin Downing, then a state senator from Pittsfield, to intervene in its review of the pipeline on behalf of the communities it would have crossed.

Kulik said the DPU’s position that the legislators were not “substantially and specifically affected” by their decisions was “absurd,” “ridiculous” and “insulting.”

“Our experience in working to defeat that misguided project made it clear that the permitting and financing procedures for natural gas infrastructure do not align with our clean energy future in Massachusetts, and place unjustifiable environmental and financial risks on citizens and ratepayers,” Kulik said in submitting the new bill.

He added in his letter, “We must reform procedures at the Department Public Utilities so that the voices of ratepayers, communities and legislators are fully heard and considered by utility regulators.”

His position was reinforced by the regional grassroots anti-pipeline awareness coalition president Kathryn Eiseman of Cummington, who said, “This legislation … would allow the public to have a meaningful role in agency decisions that will impact us for decades to come ... The DPU currently believes it can bar municipalities and ratepayers from banding together to participate in DPU proceedings in an orderly fashion with legal counsel and technical experts of their choice.”

We can’t agree enough — and we were happy to see our legislative delegation stand so strongly for the interests of western Massachusetts.

After all, these proposed laws, while not by themselves able to block potentially worthwhile energy projects in the future, would protect our neighbors, the environment and the economy from the self-interest of pipeline companies and electricity generators by giving us an equal voice before the DPU and by requiring a gas pipeline company’s investors — not local electricity users — to pay up front for questionable pipeline projects.

Written by the Daily Hampshire Gazette Editorial Board