There are the signs.
Stop the Pipeline. Protect our Common Wealth. No Fracked Gas in Mass.
And there are the meetings.
Boards of selectmen hosting informational sessions. Residents packing town halls and school auditoriums to learn about a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cross the state’s northern hem, starting at the New York border and passing through thinly populated rural areas, conservation land — and their backyards.
There are the local votes against the pipeline, and a rolling protest rally moving in stages across the state.
And there is outrage.
“We know we need energy if we want to keep the lights on,” said Pepperell resident Ken Hartlage, president of the Nashoba Conservation Trust. “What we’re saying is don’t impose a solution on us that doesn’t allow us to be part of the process.”
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP, the Houston-based company proposing the high-pressure transmission pipeline as an expansion of its regional network, hasn’t started the application process, but company spokesman Richard Wheatley has said the company plans to submit preliminary papers with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September.
The proposal would add a connection to Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which runs from Texas to the Northeast, entering the state from Connecticut and curling through Boston’s western suburbs on its way north. The Massachusetts portion of the new pipeline would cross from upstate New York near Pittsfield, and follow a route along the state’s northern border before connecting with the existing network in Dracut. Kinder Morgan’s plan is to have the new supply system up and running by Nov. 1, 2018.
Wheatley said the planned route is “generalized” and preliminary. A company-provided list of potentially affected Massachusetts communities includes those that may be on or near the route of the main pipeline and several lateral connectors. The route is likely to change, he said, as the company continues to survey private property along the tentative route.
Half of the roughly 1,650 affected property owners in Massachusetts have given their permission for land surveys. The final route depends not only on the surveys, but also approval by the federal oversight agency.
The company’s goal is to bring in more natural gas from regions of the country where a controversial drilling practice, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has dramatically increased supplies.
Supporters say the new gas supply is badly needed to keep heating and electricity costs down in New England.
People who live in Bolton and Pepperell and Groton and other communities along the potential route speak of possible gas leaks, environmental damage, and lower property values.
Wheatley, the company spokesman, said those concerns have been addressed.
“Kinder Morgan is committed to public safety, protection of the environment, and operation of our facilities in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The proposed pipeline and any associated easements should not impact the value of individuals’ property.”
The pipeline opponents also decry what they see as their lack of control over whether the pipeline is allowed and where it goes.
The federal commission oversees the interstate transportation of natural gas. If the company’s initial application is accepted, the agency issues a prefiling docket number, and anyone — landowners, environmental groups, government officials — may post comments on its website, www.ferc.gov. But state and local officials have little jurisdiction over such projects.
Moreover, if FERC determines that Kinder Morgan needs to run its underground pipeline across a piece of private property, and the owner refuses to negotiate a lease agreement, the company has the right to take an easement by eminent domain. Under a FERC-issued certificate, the company may also remove outbuildings, barns, trees, and other objects above ground in the process of installing the pipeline.
Since Kinder Morgan announced its expansion plan this spring, area residents and government officials have been making their views on the project known. And most are against it.
Boards of selectmen in Pepperell and Groton have voted unanimously to oppose the pipeline. And at their regular meeting Monday night, Groton’s selectmen voted, 4 to 1, to prohibit Kinder Morgan from surveying land along town-owned roads, according to Selectman Peter Cunningham.
At Special Town Meeting sessions on June 30, Pepperell and Groton voters overwhelmingly supported nonbinding resolutions expressing strong objections to the plan.
On July 1, municipal officials from nine communities along the route, including Dracut, Dunstable, Groton, Pepperell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, and Wilmington, joined a representative from state Representative Sheila C. Harrington’s office and several members of area conservation groups at Legion Hall in Groton to organize a regional coalition against the proposal.
“There’s really three cogs in this wheel: the homeowners with concerns about the quality of life, the value of their property, and safety; the land trust and environmental groups [asking] ‘Is there a need for the gas?’; and now we’re attempting to bring together the governmental bodies to look at it from a government perspective,” Pepperell Town Administrator John Moak said during a telephone conversation a few days before the meeting, which he helped set up. “They all have a little bit of a different approach to it.”
By the end of the meeting, the participants had refined their mission: Rather than simply opposing the pipeline, they agreed to work collaboratively to gather information about the need for the pipeline and its potential impacts.
Later on July 1, college students from Climate Summer assembled at St. Francis Church in Dracut with the Dracut/Tyngsborough Pipeline Awareness Group to kick off a bike tour aimed at alerting area residents about the issue.
“We sat on the grass. We talked. We voiced what we love about Dracut, each taking a turn,” said a leader of the awareness group, Julie Jette, in an e-mail. “Off in the distance a rooster crowed at the last sunlight. Birds sang. The shade cooled us. It was a good meeting.”
On July 6, a rolling rally that has been following the proposed pipeline route began in Richmond, southwest of Pittsfield at the New York border. The participants are walking across each community and, when they reach the town line, passing along to the next group a symbolic piece of pipe and a letter to the governor. Their aim is to finish their trek on July 30, when protesters plan to march across Boston Common and deliver their message to the State House. The march is slated to reach Pepperell on Tuesday; Groton on Wednesday; Dunstable next Thursday; Tyngsborough the following day, July 25 ; and Dracut on July 26.
Meanwhile, in town after town, neighbors who used to pass by with a smile and nod have been stopping to talk.
“You walk into the Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning and people will say, ‘What’s new? What’s happening? What should we do?’ ” said Paula Terrasi, Pepperell’s conservation administrator. “Or I’ll be sitting in Town Hall and they come in, ‘Can I see the map? Is the pipeline going through my property?’ ”
Groton resident Katharyn Dawson, owner and operator of the Second Hand Prose bookshop on Hollis Street, invited neighbors to her store on a Monday evening to write letters to state lawmakers and representatives in Congress. Her shop also has become a distribution point for yard signs, bumper stickers, and information provided by the local Stop the Pipeline Coordinating Committee.
“The more I read, the more concerned I got,” Dawson said.
Opponents say the process offers too little, too late. They want to know why Kinder Morgan began requesting land surveys before informing property owners and local government officials of its plan — and why they were left out of initial conversations.
“There aren’t that many in town that are not opposed to it,” said Groton Selectman Stuart Schulman. “My own personal reaction was so strong. It seemed like a no-brainer, and pretty much everyone feels the same way I do.”
During presentations, Kinder Morgan representatives have stressed that the proposal is in an early stage of development. At a May 12 meeting in Pepperell, for example, company spokesman Allen Fore said public review — and oversight — would be shared by a long list of agencies in addition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife, the state Legislature, the state Department of Public Works, environmental protection agencies, and town conservation committees.
“It’s a transparent process,” FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said during a recent phone interview. “The public is involved from the start to the final decision.”
Analysts say the pipeline has the potential to lower — or at least stabilize — what are some of the highest energy costs in the nation by opening up new supplies of cheap, domestic natural gas and expanding a pipeline system that is becoming inadequate to meet the region’s needs. They cite shortages resulting from recent or imminent closures of coal- and nuclear-powered electricity generating plants: the Salem Harbor coal-burning power plant closed in May, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is scheduled to close at the end of this year, and the Brayton Point coal plant in Somerset is to go offline in 2017.
Together, the three provide 10 percent of the region’s electricity-generating capacity, according to Kevin Kelly, manager of the municipal Groton Electric Light Department.
“The need has been discussed for four or five years in the industry,” Kelly said. “The average person is just hearing it for the first time now.”
In an ideal world, Kelly added, there would be three companies, three proposed pipeline paths, and a decision based on “which option will offend the smallest number” of people. Since the process is so costly, however, “only billionaires can enter it,” he said, noting that Kinder Morgan has spent “millions at this point” and will spend much more over the next two years before FERC makes its ruling.
But residents across the northern portion of Middlesex County want to know why Kinder Morgan isn’t exploring other routes. And many are growing more anxious by the day about the potential consequences if the pipeline is approved.
“Our personal story is devastating to us. But it’s too easy to say, ‘Tough luck, you guys. I’m glad it’s not me,’ ” said Groton resident Richard Hewitt. “But the larger issues are conservation, the taxation, gas being exported . . . paying taxes on land taken by eminent domain. It seems so outrageous.”
Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein1@ hotmail.com.