Jun 232014

We all like to keep warm in the winter, and none of us wants to pay more for our utilities than we absolutely have to, so it might be tempting to support the proposed natural gas pipeline (Northeast Energy Direct) currently projected to cut through Groton on its way from the fracking fields of western Pennsylvania to a distribution center in Dracut.

But let’s set aside the assumption that this particular pipeline is our only option, or even the best among several options. Nobody denies that New England needs more energy. Nobody denies that a new natural gas transmission line could provide some of that energy. But we, as electricity ratepayers, would have to pour billions of our own dollars into this project. And we, as an impacted town, would have to live with the added danger, devaluation, and environmental degradation for perhaps fifty to a hundred years. So we, as citizens of a democracy, really need to do our homework on this issue.

A natural gas pipeline is a long-term fixture. During the lifetime of this pipeline, the price of natural gas will almost certainly rise from the current historic lows, while the price of wind and solar power will almost certainly continue to fall. Given these cost trends, should we really be making such a large public investment to increase the fossil fuels in our energy portfolio?

During the lifetime of this pipeline, a vast new field of offshore wind turbines is set to come online. A flood of fresh hydroelectric power is set to flow down to us from Canada. Towns across Massachusetts will continue to build solar farms, including two proposed for Groton. There may well come a time when we are ready to start weaning ourselves off fossil-powered electricity — but how much harder would that be with such massive infrastructure bringing a steady supply to our doorstep?

Our current natural gas shortfall hits us hard in the peak evening hours during the coldest days of the coldest winters. We could fix this problem by spending billions of dollars on a new pipeline. Or we could fix the leaks in our existing pipelines, add natural gas storage capacity to our power plants, add battery backups to our electrical grid, and implement conservation programs to reduce our demand. That second plan is the one that preserves our neighborhoods and saves our environment.

There are other pipeline projects already in the works. There are other, less destructive pathways this pipeline could take, using existing rights of way along highways, railways, utility lines, and existing pipelines. There are plenty of pathways that don’t go under our high school campus. So why would we want to put 129 miles of 30- or 36-inch pipeline in places where there have never been such pipelines before?

Traditionally, natural gas pipelines are paid for by the companies that build them, using the proceeds from long-term contracts that prove their viability. That’s called capitalism. So why would this pipeline be funded, instead, by a tariff on our utility bills? Is it good public policy to make ratepayers shoulder all the risks while the nation’s third-largest energy company reaps all the profits? Should we be forced to invest in a project that isn’t viable enough to happen at all without a public subsidy?

These are questions to think about, to ask of Kinder Morgan’s representatives, and to include in the letters we write to our elected officials and policy makers. Do your own research. Find your own answers. But the more I learn about this pipeline, the worse it smells.

–Greg R. Fishbone, Main Street