Covering more than 1,600 acres of hills and forest, West Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Plainfield belongs to one of the largest stretches of conservation land in the state. According to Mass Audubon, which owns the sanctuary, moose, black bears, otters, fishers and bobcats make their homes there, as do a number of vulnerable plant and animal species.
Mass Audubon spent many years working with partner organizations to create the wide swath of protected land that includes West Mountain, Henry Tepper, the group’s president, recently told the Advocate. “That is really meant to be a kind of landscape that helps address the impact of climate change,” he said. “You’re talking about a big, robust, unfragmented, highly intact forest system, land contiguous to other protected lands that help create north-south/east-west corridors for movement of both flora and fauna in response to climate change.”
Given West Mountain’s role in countering the effects of climate change, Tepper said, it was striking when Kinder Morgan—the company behind the controversial Tennessee Gas Pipeline proposal that would pass through a number of Western Mass. communities—recently asked Mass Audubon for permission to survey the sanctuary in connection to the proposed project, which would expand existing natural gas pipelines. “There’s a certain painful irony to that kind of request, when pipelines like that are being sold as advances in sustainable energy,” he said.
Mass Audubon has denied Kinder Morgan access to West Mountain, as well as to two other Audubon properties the company wants to survey, Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox and Cheshire Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in the Worcester County town of Ashburnham. While company representatives did have a private meeting with Audubon officials earlier this year about the project, Tepper said that his organization still does not have enough solid information about the plan. In a letter to a land agent working for the Tennessee Gas project denying access to the sanctuaries, Tepper noted the limited information and lack of public process about the proposed pipeline, including conversations about whether there’s a need for a project of this size and scope and whether more modest alternatives could meet the same needs. Tepper also expressed concerns about the effects such a survey would have on the fragile species at the sanctuaries.
Details about the proposed pipeline project have been limited so far. To date, Kinder Morgan has yet to file any applications for the project with state or federal government agencies. Last week, a public meeting had been planned between company representatives and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and Franklin Regional Planning Board. That meeting was postponed, however, in response to complaints that the proposed meeting site could not accommodate interested members of the public.
On its website, Kinder Morgan says its Northeast Expansion pipeline project is being developed “in response to significant interest from local distribution companies, electric generators, industrial end users and developers of liquefied natural gas projects in New England and Atlantic Canada. … Recent initiatives by the New England Governors and the New England States Committee on Electricity suggest that adding these significant volumes [of gas] to Northeast markets should provide sufficient incremental supply to lower the price of gas in New England energy markets and enhance reliability of gas and electricity grids.”
A map on the website indicate the proposed pipeline would stretch from the Utica area in upstate New York across northern Massachusetts to Dracut, a suburb just north of Lowell. The map does not name the towns that the pipeline would pass through, although property owners in a number of communities—including, in the Valley, Plainfield, Ashfield, Conway, Shelburne, Deerfield, Montague, Erving, Northfield, Warwick and Orange —have reportedly received communications from Tennessee Gas seeking to survey their land.
In a statement sent to the Advocate in response to questions about the Audubon properties, Richard N. Wheatley, Kinder Morgan’s director of corporate communications and public affairs, did not address a question about when the company will submit its project plans to the state. An article earlier this month in the Berkshire Eagle included a statement to that paper by Wheatley, in which he wrote, “There is not a final identified route through Berkshire County. … In order for Kinder Morgan to determine the final pipeline route, we will first need to conduct civil surveys that encompass all environmental impacts including, but not limited to, wetland, archaeological and culturally sensitive issues.” Wheatley also told the Eagle that Kinder Morgan is “a good corporate citizen” that “works closely with our landowners and towns” and planned to hold informational sessions in the area about the project.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the lack of firm details to date, the project has inspired considerable opposition. Opponents object generally to expanding the infrastructure for natural gas, rather that focusing more on conservation and renewable energy sources. Specifically, they object to the fact that the pipeline in question would transport gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which water and chemicals are injected into the ground to release natural gas reserves trapped under rock layers—a process critics say poses considerable environmental and public health risks. In recent weeks, a number of Town Meetings in Western Mass., including Plainfield, as well as the Northampton City Council, passed non-binding resolutions opposing the pipeline project. And a bill that would ban hydraulic fracturing in Massachusetts is pending at the Statehouse.
Mass Audubon’s letter refusing Kinder Morgan access to its properties does not refer specifically to the issue of fracking. Rather, it says, in deciding to deny the survey request, “our key considerations include the fact that there has not been any public process at the local, state or federal levels of government examining the purported need for the proposed gas pipeline; no alternatives such as smaller-scale improvements to gas distribution infrastructure have been proposed; and there has been no analysis of potential alignments for any essential infrastructure improvements.”
The letter also notes concerns about the potential effects of such a survey, which seeks to evaluate boundaries and physical and environmental features of the land, including wetlands, streams, and plant and animal species. “Rare, threatened, and endangered species are a challenge to locate and document, and we want to be certain that any research and investigations for such resources are rigorous and conducted based on protocols developed in consultation with affected landowners and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program,” Mass Audubon wrote to the company, adding that it also has concerns about the work’s disturbing sensitive habitats or introducing invasive species.
Tepper told the Advocate that his organization has two sets of concerns: “One is our mission and our responsibility to protect the ecological integrity of our sanctuaries and the beauty of our sanctuaries and the importance of our sanctuaries for public use. The request from Kinder Morgan to do these surveys really doesn’t have anywhere near sufficient information to give us a comfort level that those needs would be protected and respected.”
In addition, Tepper said, “there’s the fact that the proposal—such as it is, because there isn’t much of a formal proposal—but the idea of building this pipeline to us seems to contradict a really enlightened policy that is committed to renewable energy and sustainable energy in the commonwealth.”
The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick “has been fantastic on these issues,” Tepper continued, pointing to the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which aims to counter the effects of climate change through, among other measures, mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the development of clean, renewable energy sources. So he questions why the administration would support a project like the pipeline, which would establish a major infrastructure for a non-renewable energy source.
“We understand that natural gas is going to be necessary and maybe a bridge to renewables,” Tepper said. But he’s concerned that a project of this scope would lock the commonwealth into dependency on a non-renewable source. “You really have to be careful you don’t create self-fulfilling prophecies here: you build this infrastructure and it’s an infrastructure to be used,” he said.
Tepper outlined these concerns in a recent letter to Patrick, in which he said that Mass Audubon “respectfully object[s] to the manner in which the Commonwealth is proceeding, in cooperation with energy companies, to undertake new long-term natural gas import commitments to the state and region along with related infrastructure.” The Tennessee Gas pipeline proposal, Tepper wrote, “is a major long-term infrastructure investment that would commit the Commonwealth and its ratepayers to decades of rising expenditures and extend our over-dependency on fossil fuels.” The letter also expressed Mass Audubon’s objections to hydraulic fracturing, which, Tepper wrote, “is especially damaging.”
The letter asked Patrick to “reconsider [his] support of any new major natural gas imports to the state and region, along with the proposed interstate pipeline” and to instruct the state Departments of Public Utilities and Energy Resources to “undertake open and transparent processes to publicly examine energy supply needs and pursue options that will meet those needs with the least damaging environmental impact while advancing Massachusetts clean energy policy.”
At deadline, neither the governor’s office nor Kinder Morgan had responded to Mass Audubon’s letters.
In a statement emailed to the Advocate, Wheatley, the Kinder Morgan spokesman, said the company is preparing a response to Mass Audubon. “As we continue project outreach, we will maintain contact with the Mass Audubon regarding pertinent issues and will work with Mass Audubon as we move forward,” he wrote.
Wheatley also noted that company representatives had met with Audubon officials at the organization’s headquarters in March “to discuss the project and understand Mass Audubon’s concerns. Preliminary maps were reviewed with members at that time, which depicted proposed pipeline crossings on Mass Audubon Society properties.”
Wheatley’s statement did not address a question from the Advocate about what, if any, plans it has for follow-up actions to try to gain access to the Audubon lands. By law, the company can file a petition with the Mass. Department of Public Utilities seeking authorization to enter properties to conduct surveys for the pipeline project—something state records indicate it has already done in at least one instance, to gain access to property in Sandisfield.
Heidi Ricci, a senior policy analyst for Mass Audubon, said she’s heard of other landowners receiving letters from Kinder Morgan referring to the possibility of the company’s filing such a petition with DPU, although her organization has received no such correspondence. Before the project can proceed, she noted, the company will need to file plans with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and undergo a state environmental review process, which will include the opportunity for public comment. “Right now there are no filings of any kind with any state or federal agencies, so there are no plans for people to review or comment on,” she said.
Tepper said he expects to hear back from both Patrick and Kinder Morgan, “and we’ll have a back and forth then.”•