Ask someone their opinion on natural gas, and you’ll receive a range of answers. To some, natural gas is the fuel of the future. To others, since it flows from a pipeline, natural gas might as well be oil’s little brother. And to some folks, including in the energy industry, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel”, somewhere between idealistic solar power and prehistoric coal.
While natural gas use has steadily increased during this decade, the industry has run into a new kind of roadblock: moratoriums on new hookups. The even-more-surprising thing about the moratoriums is that they are self-imposed by gas distribution companies, the entity to whom you pay your gas bill. Most cases of natural gas hookup moratoriums are happening in the Northeast, where the population is relatively dense and the infrastructure is old. In western Massachusetts, Berkshire Gas and Columbia Gas have imposed moratoriums on several cities and towns they serve. In upstate New York, the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation has taken similar action in Tompkins County. Still, why would a company prevent itself from hooking up new gas lines to homes and businesses?
The overall increase in demand for natural gas combined with aging infrastructure has caused pipeline reliability concerns. More simply put, there are not enough pipelines to keep up with peak periods of gas demand. The pipelines I’m referring to are the main lines, the 18-36-inch lines that transport large quantities of gas to smaller and smaller pipes that eventually hook up to your home or office.
Though more pipeline capacity is needed if companies want to easily meet gas demand, what these areas have in common are resistance to new pipeline construction and expansion. In 2016, after a two-year fight Kinder Morgan dropped a proposal for a pipeline from eastern New York to northeastern Massachusetts. The pipeline would have provided more capacity in and around the western Massachusetts towns experiencing moratoriums. Unlike the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal, which appears in the news every week, you likely didn’t hear about the “Northeast Direct” project. But, forces of opposition organized fierce a campaign against the pipeline and defeated the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline company.
Politically, these moratorium areas in New York and Massachusetts share key characteristics. Relative to their greater regions, they are rural. Both areas tend to vote in high numbers for progressive candidates. They are also academic havens – Tompkins County is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, while western Massachusetts boasts several top-notch liberal arts colleges such as Williams and Amherst, plus the flagship University of Massachusetts campus. While it is not clear what percentage of voters in these towns wish to do about pipeline capacity, it is clear what their mostly left-leaning elected officials want: to end the moratoriums as soon as possible. And their main argument for getting gas customers back online is not because local politicians want to see gas companies prosper or angry mobs of constituents at town hall meetings – it’s all about small business.
Regardless of one’s view on natural gas as an energy source, nobody wants to risk pipeline malfunctions. While rare, explosions can be catastrophic and deadly. But for the most part, gas pipelines are out of sight, out of mind. At the same time, nobody wants to pay more for electricity, have their backyards dug up for pipeline construction, or put local gas distribution workers on the unemployment line. In towns with moratoriums, the groups and individuals that organize the best could wind up having most of their demands met. The only question is – who will organize and “win”? Gas companies? Renewable energy companies? Individual land owners? Environmental groups? Small businesses? A combination of these?
Unlike many of today’s political and economic issues, the future of natural gas is one with many possibilities and unlikely coalitions. The industry could ultimately prevail in its efforts to upgrade pipeline capacity in politically challenging areas, but could just as easily see more local distribution companies cease gas hookups in these types of areas. But one thing is clear: battles for and against pipeline capacity increases will be won by the group that best organizes and controls the message of their efforts.
-Sam Taylor, campaign field director