Not many people showed up at an information session a couple of nights ago in Windham.
It was the first of Kinder Morgan’s state-required open houses. There were charts and maps showing the proposed pipeline’s path across 17 towns in New Hampshire. The pipeline would carry natural gas into the region from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Liberty Utilities, New Hampshire’s largest gas distributor, is one of the pipeline’s biggest customers.
Bob and Beth Runco live along the proposed route in Hudson and as they left the auditorium early they were pretty dispirited. “I don’t see how they’re going to stop it, you know,” said Bob Runco, “It looks like Massachusetts was kind of successful in some towns to drive it out of there. I just don’t think there’s enough opposition up here.”
It was a different scene 24 hours later in Rindge on Wednesday, at the second public information session. One pipeline opponent standing outside said she was “so pumped” about the day.
Political Dominoes Fall
One might say the shift began on Sunday, with Senator Bernie Sanders in a speech to a Democratic fundraising dinner.
“I believe right here in New Hampshire, the Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline, which would carry fracked natural gas for 400 miles through 17 communities is a bad idea and should be opposed,” he intoned from the podium.
Then, starting Tuesday night, the political dominoes began to fall.
During a conference call with constituents, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said she opposes the project because her questions haven’t been adequately answered.
And then Wednesday came statements of opposition from Representative Ann McLane Kuster and Governor Maggie Hassan. On her website, Kuster posted a letter titled “Kinder Morgan Pipeline is a bad deal for New Hampshire,” and in a statement emailed to NHPR, Hassan wrote, “I have repeatedly made clear that FERC and the company must work to address the concerns of affected communities, and believe that if they cannot do so, the project should not move forward as currently proposed.” By Thursday, Represntative Frank Guinta had joined the chorus.
“That’s good, it’s about time, it’s about time,” said Al Lefebvre, a member of the local conservation commission in Rindge. He says it took a frustratingly long time to get New Hampshire politicians to take a stand. “Well, I think they were trying to see how the winds were flying, and stick their fingers in the air and see which way is it going.”
But Lefebvre worries that for all the headlines these statements might spur, it’s not at all clear how much difference they will make.
“An Independent Agency”
Ultimately, the decision of whether the pipeline gets built rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, or FERC.
Hannah Northey, a reporter focusing on covering the FERC for a DC-based website E&E Daily says the application process doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on how much local opposition exists.
“I don’t think that political opposition is going to necessarily change the process at FERC,” she explains, “You’re going to come up against FERC saying that ‘we are an independent agency and we make our decisions based on the merits of the project.”
Northey says landowners can get their voices heard, though, and FERC does consider the impacts of projects very carefully. She adds, contrary to what many activists claim, the FERC doesn’t approve every pipeline. In a story last year she says she found that the commission approved 56 percent of the applications that had come in since 2006.
So, the opposition of some of New Hampshire’s most prominent politicians may not necessarily change the calculus for Kinder Morgan. In Rindge on Wednesday, company officials said they needed to do a better job communicating the benefit of their project.
“If we don’t do something, businesses will speak with their feet, and they’re going to move out of New Hampshire,” said Allen Fore, VP of Public Affairs at Kinder Morgan. He insists that going forward his company will work to answer the questions that Ayotte, Kuster, and Hassan have, but they will be going forward.
“We respect Senator Ayotte and her position. We obviously respect Congresswoman Kuster and her position, but we’re going to continue to work with them to provide the information to them that they need for their constituents,” said Fore.
And so, the primary arena for this debate is now set to shift to a federal agency down in Washington, D.C.
**This story has been updated to include the opposition of Representative Frank Guinta**