As Connecticut Pushes Forward on Natural Gas Expansion, Some Push Back

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Barbara Hallisey usually buys her Christmas tree from Scott’s Tree Farm on Route 6 in Andover. For convenience, Scott’s can’t be beat. It’s across the street from Hallisey’s house on Merritt Valley Road, about 100 yards away.

Hallisey won’t be buying her tree there this winter, however. The tree farm land may soon be the site of what is being called a “natural gas infusion station,” and Hallisey will be boycotting the tree business. According to a version of the plans obtained by Hallisey from the town’s Building Department, the station would have 16 truck bays for specially built trucks to transport compressed natural gas, along with a complex of structures for the injection of that gas into an existing underground pipeline. The proposed site for the station sits on land just off Route 6 next to a hiking trail, land that is now covered with young trees.

The proposed Andover infusion station, a project of Delaware-based Global CNG Holdings, is in some ways just one battleground in a fight taking place all over Connecticut, the region and the country. Connecticut is one of several states in New England pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to increase capacity for the transport, storage and burning of natural gas, as it tries to both lower energy costs for consumers and move away from traditional sources of energy like oil, coal and nuclear.

A keystone of this strategy is a project, known as Atlantic Bridge, to expand the capacity of the existing Algonquin natural gas pipeline. The Algonquin pipeline, which runs under Andover and cuts a diagonal path under towns across Connecticut from Danbury to the northeast corner, is owned and operated by North American energy giant Spectra Energy.

Amid the growing movement toward increasing natural gas capacity, there is also increasing opposition from homeowners, environmentalists and some politicians, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Map by Greg Moody

 

Hallisey’s main concern with the infusion station project is safety. She is worried about gas leaks, and the traffic of the trucks along Route 6, a single-lane highway with a 50-mph speed limit known for fatal accidents. Hallisey is not alone in her concern. There are more than 30 houses on Merritt Valley Road and nearby Lake Road with lawn signs declaring residents’ opposition to the infusion station.

Robert Russell, who owns the Christmas tree farm on which the site is planned, says the town stands to gain from the project. “The biggest benefit, basically, is the tax it’s going to go ahead and create for the people of Andover,” Russell says.

Richard Auer, who has lived on Merritt Valley Road for 35 years, is not convinced the town would benefit, “for the simple reason that if something happens, we’ve lost all of our homes,” he says, adding that he feels property values would suffer from the development.

After submitting a plan to Andover’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission in April, Global CNG Holdings withdrew its application. Terry Durkin, the general counsel for the company, explained Global CNG had missed the business cycle for the year. After it became clear that the infusion station wouldn’t be up and running for the winter of 2016, the company decided to instead plan toward the winter of 2017 and reassess its application to the town, Durkin explained, adding that the company was debating internally about when exactly to resubmit its proposal. A reworked proposal could come as early as this fall, says Durkin, adding that everything was on the table.

The infusion station would inject more natural gas into the Algonquin pipeline, the proposed expansion of which pits natural gas advocates against environmentalists. This past January, officials on the town council in Rocky Hill voted to reject a similar infusion station, brought by Florida-based Pentagon Energy.

Advocates of natural gas point to the fact that the fossil fuel burns much cleaner than coal or oil, and emits less carbon into the atmosphere. Local environmentalists argue that view does not take into account the emissions produced at all stages of the extraction process, as well as the dangers of groundwater pollution during the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking.” According to Ben Martin of the environmental advocacy group 350CT, natural gas “does burn more efficiently, but with the leaks in the pipelines and the emissions from fracking and drilling, the overall climate consequences actually are pretty close to what coal would do.”

The pipeline expansion project is in the process of getting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This past June, the project cleared its first regulatory hurdle, as FERC issued its environmental assessment of the proposal. But even this early stage of the regulatory process has been fraught with controversy. Natural Resource Group (NRG), the contractor hired to do the assessment for FERC, has come under fire for having an undisclosed previous financial relationship with Spectra Energy, the company behind the Atlantic Bridge project. The environmentalist website DeSmog Blog, which obtained conflict of interest disclosure forms from NRG, claims the contractor did not disclose its work on the proposed PennEast gas pipeline, a project of which Spectra is a 10 percent owner. NRG spokesperson Kevin O’Connor declined to comment on the allegations of a conflict of interest, instead pointing to the FERC response.

Following the revelations in June, Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, both Democrats, co-authored a June 14 letter to FERC Chairman Norman Bay. The PennEast project, the senators write, “is physically connected and financially intertwined with the Algonquin pipeline that the Atlantic Bridge project is intended to expand, raising the possibility that NRG could financially benefit from the approval of the Atlantic Bridge project.” Their letter goes on to call on FERC to issue an environmental impact statement using a contractor “free from any ties to the industry that could … call its objectivity into question.” Spectra Energy’s spokesperson for the Atlantic Bridge project, Marylee Hanley, disagrees with that assessment, pointing to FERC Chairman Bay’s July 19 response to Sen. Markey, in which Bay stresses that the commission’s Office of Energy Projects’ “staff maintains complete control over the scope, content, quality, and schedule of the contractor’s work.”

Still, the project has also come under fire from New York’s Democratic senators. In May, before revelations came out about NRG’s connection to Spectra, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand were calling on FERC to delay the expansion of the Algonquin system in New York state. “I have serious concerns with the Algonquin gas pipeline project because it poses a threat to the quality of life, environmental, health and safety of residents across the Hudson Valley and New York state,” Schumer wrote in the letter.

Connecticut’s Democratic senators had not issued any similar calls for delay or review of the project, either on environmental grounds, or related to the claim of a conflict of interest. When asked to comment for this story on the conflict of interest and on the project more generally, Sen. Chris Murphy’s office emailed a statement. “I continue to review the project and welcome all feedback from Connecticut residents,” Murphy says. Sen. Richard Blumenthal went further. In an emailed statement, Blumenthal says Atlantic Bridge “must be thoroughly vetted by FERC to ensure it meets tough federal environmental standards. I am concerned — along with my Massachusetts colleagues ­— with the potential conflict of interest of a FERC consultant with ties to the Atlantic Bridge owner. FERC needs to address these concerns before the project moves forward. In addition, we must also prioritize reducing overall energy use and spurring additional use of renewable energy.”

Site of the proposed infusion station

The Atlantic Bridge expansion of the Algonquin pipeline and the proposed Andover infusion station both would fulfill goals outlined in the state’s 2013 policy document known as the Comprehensive Energy Strategy (CES). A cornerstone of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s energy strategy to increase the state’s natural gas capacity, the document originated in the Democratic governor’s office and was then passed into law by the state legislature. Renewed every three years, the 2013 version drew the ire of environmentalists angry about fracking, and the next update of the document is shaping up to be a contentious process in the 2017 session. The push toward increasing gas capacity was further buttressed by a 2015 law, which authorizes Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to make purchases toward increasing capacity — costs which can then be passed on to ratepayers.

Environmentalists argue the law amounts to public subsidization of pipeline construction, and point to an explicit ratepayer tariff instituted by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican. In August of this year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared the subsidy illegal.

According to a complaint filed with FERC by a pair of strange bedfellows — the environmentalist litigation firm the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the PSEG coal-fired power plant in Bridgeport — the strategy of direct or indirect subsidization of natural gas violates federal law. In a motion filed in support of PSEG’s complaint, the CLF argues that the only way the strategy would achieve any reduction in ratepayer cost is through a scheme that is “unjust, unreasonable, and unduly discriminatory or preferential,” in the language of the Federal Power Act.

Gov. Malloy’s office is undeterred. According to Paul Mounds, the governor’s senior director of policy and government affairs, the state’s pipeline subsidization program will continue. “We think that it is a viable option as a means to address our regional energy concerns and issues. … We were happy — and we took a leadership role on this issue in 2015 to work with our Connecticut General Assembly — to clarify and ensure Connecticut’s ability to contribute our share to this regional solution,” Mounds says.

Politicians in New York and in Massachusetts have taken steps to put the brakes on natural gas expansion, while in Connecticut the strategy appears to be full speed ahead. Back in Andover, Hallisey and her neighbors are waiting to see what happens next.

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