Keene Sentinel: Bill aims to increase public's voice in pipeline projects
MILFORD — The battle against the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline is over, but the fight to reform the federal agency in charge of approving such pipelines is just beginning.
And the first thing that needs fixing is getting public opinion into the mix when the agency — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — reviews proposed energy projects, said U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., Tuesday.
“We all know ... that this FERC process is in need of fixing,” Kuster told a crowd of about 30 in Milford. “From countless meetings with constituents and local officials, we’ve heard plenty of stories of people feeling left out of the FERC process.”
Kuster, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, rolled out her plans for the Energy Consumer Advocacy Act to people gathered at Emerson Park in Milford under sunny skies and hot temperatures Tuesday afternoon. The park is just outside the town’s Union Square on the banks of the Souhegan River, which was one of the many water bodies slated to be crossed by the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline.
Those attending the gathering included residents and officials of some of the communities that were in the path of, or near, the proposed pipeline.
The 30-inch diameter pipeline was planned to pass through 18 southern New Hampshire communities, carrying fracked natural gas from the shale fields of northern Pennsylvania to a hub in Dracut, Mass. Those communities included the Cheshire County towns of Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester.
The pipeline’s developer, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, withdrew the project’s application to FERC last week. The move ended any possibility of the pipeline moving forward, and set the project back by years if the company, which is a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, ever decides to pursue it again.
Kuster said that, through the Energy Consumer Advocacy Act she’s sponsoring, she plans to advocate to fund and activate a federal Office of Public Participation.
It makes sense that FERC “adequately weigh” the concerns of people in communities affected by proposed projects when deciding whether to approve them, she said. That public input’s essential, she said, and it’s time the average citizen had equal representation in the FERC process.
“As many of us experienced, the FERC decision-making process does not have proper safeguards to ensure that adequate public comments are considered,” she said. “Far too often, we’ve learned that the FERC acts like a rubber stamp, instead of a regulatory agency.”
The commission relies on studies, expert testimony and contracts with companies to buy natural gas off a pipeline when considering if the project is needed, and whether to approve it.
However, the public is limited to commenting about where infrastructure should or should not go, Marilyn Learner, a Hollis resident and Northeast Energy Direct pipeline opponent, said Tuesday.
“We have no voice if the project should be built,” she said.
The Office of Public Participation would be within FERC, but operate as an independent agency, Kuster said. Many states, including New Hampshire, have an Office of Consumer Advocate to represent the public in energy infrastructure and rate-setting proceedings; the Office of Public Participation would be the federal equivalent, she said.
Kuster’s legislation seeks to allocate $6.5 million annually, which is roughly 1 percent of FERC’s annual budget, for the office, she said.
Once the office is active, it would coordinate assistance to any person or agency who wants be an intervenor in the proceedings, and compensate people for costs including attorney and expert witness fees, she said.
In addition, the office would make sure people’s voices are heard and that FERC is involving them in the decision-making process, she said.
The Office of Public Participation already exists on paper, but it was never funded, Kuster said. The office was created with the passage of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. The law focuses on promoting energy conservation and increasing the use of energy produced domestically and renewable energy.
Tad Putney, chairman of the N.H. Municipal Pipeline Coalition and Brookline town administrator, said Tuesday that the group learned several things during its 16-month fight against the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline. Among those discoveries was that towns and their residents are on their own “when it comes to opposing the wishes of a large company to build a multibillion-dollar pipeline through our collective backyards.”
In addition, towns must ask for money from their taxpayers for legal assistance and guidance, and to conduct environmental studies to fight such pipeline projects, he said.
“In our case across our 15 towns, we needed to look to our taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend our towns against a project we didn’t want here in the first place,” he said. “That money could have certainly been used in better ways, if not in our taxpayers’ back pockets.”
The FERC process is broken, and the Energy Consumer Advocacy Act is an important first step to providing the public and municipal officials with much-needed support, Putney said.
“We are hopeful this legislation will have bipartisan support and help all towns who are faced with large energy projects in the future,” he said.