In the two weeks after an announcement that award-winning actress Susan Sarandon is lending her support to the fight against the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, a presidential candidate, three of the four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation and the state’s governor have come out against the project.
This is something New Hampshire residents opposed to the pipeline have been asking their elected officials to do for months.
Public statements from the Granite State officials — two Republicans and two Democrats — were issued within hours of each other beginning Tuesday night.
But first, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stated his opposition to the pipeline, in prepared remarks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Manchester Sunday night. Sanders is running for the Democratic Party nomination for president.
That seemed to open the floodgates.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., who represents the 2nd Congressional District, both issued news releases Wednesday saying they oppose the project, which, if approved, would bring a high-pressure natural gas transmission line across about 70 miles of southern New Hampshire, including five towns in Cheshire County.
In her news release, Kuster called the pipeline a “bad deal” for New Hampshire.
“As the federal representative for 15 of the 17 New Hampshire towns located along the route of the NED pipeline, I have concluded that this project does not provide sufficient benefits to New Hampshire families and businesses to justify the disruption and long-term negative impacts to our communities,” she said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan publicly announced her opposition Wednesday, in response to a reporter’s question, and U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., who represents the 1st Congressional District, said he couldn’t support the pipeline as proposed.
“In my duty to the people I represent, I cannot support this pipeline, as planned. We still have unanswered questions,” he said in a statement.
Prior to their statements Wednesday, Ayotte, Kuster, Guinta and Hassan had remained neutral on the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, along with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
In response to a email from The Sentinel Wednesday night about whether Shaheen planned to take a position for or against the pipeline, her office replied with a statement from the Senator saying neither.
“Residents and stakeholders have many outstanding questions that must be answered,” Shaheen said. “I will continue to engage with federal agencies and Kinder Morgan on these issues, and I remain committed to ensuring that the federal review process meets the safety and environmental standards that New Hampshire deserves.”
Ayotte first spoke against the project proposed by Kinder Morgan during a conference call Tuesday night, but left open the possibility of reconsidering her stance if questions and concerns posed by residents along the pipeline’s path are sufficiently answered by federal regulators and the pipeline’s developers.
Her response was prompted by a question from state Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline. The town he represents is in the pipeline’s proposed path.
Hassan’s statement came with a caveat similar to Ayotte’s. Hassan has long urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to address the concerns of residents in affected communities, and to consider all alternatives.
“We must strengthen our energy infrastructure to reduce costs for our families and businesses and create jobs, and I believe natural gas will be part of a strategy to reach a more diverse clean energy future,” Hassan said.
If the concerns of affected residents and communities aren’t adequately addressed, she said, the project shouldn’t move forward.
Kuster opposes the project as proposed, but her statement indicates she’s staying open-minded.
“Throughout the evaluation process, I have aimed to be fair, open and accessible when listening to both supporters and opponents of the NED project,” she said. “However, without tangible evidence of substantial economic gains to the communities that are affected, I have not seen enough evidence to justify the potential damage.”
Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester stand to be affected by the pipeline.
Hassan, a Democrat, and Ayotte are matched in a high-profile 2016 Senate race. Recent election polls have the two candidates in a dead heat.
Kuster’s seat is also up in 2016.
As of Sept. 30, the state had 872,171 registered voters, according to data from the N.H. Secretary of State’s Office. Of that number, 112,909, or 13 percent, live in the 17 communities along the pipeline route.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the power to decide whether the 419-mile interstate pipeline, which would carry fracked natural gas from the shale gas fields in northern Pennsylvania to Dracut, Mass., is approved.
Officials with Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, are asking the commission to approve the pipeline by the fourth quarter of 2016, and filed the project’s application with the federal agency Nov. 20.
The pipeline had been in the pre-filing stages with FERC for nearly a year.
Ayotte is against the pipeline “unless and until” FERC and the U.S. Department of Energy Inspector General address residents’ concerns, she said.
“It is disappointing that, despite requests from both the delegation and local residents, FERC and the DOE Inspector General have thus far failed to provide meaningful answers to these concerns, let alone provide assurance that they will take them into account,” she said in a news release. “These are important questions and New Hampshire residents deserve substantive answers.”
That statement was also included in a letter Ayotte sent Wednesday to selectmen in 14 towns that are part of the N.H. Municipal Pipeline Coalition.
In the letter, Ayotte outlined what she and other members of the congressional delegation have done to this point to push federal regulators and Kinder Morgan to provide more answers to questions about the project and approval process.
The project has met strong resistance from residents and officials in towns along the proposed path; concerns include potential environmental and health effects, and the federal government possibly taking property by eminent domain.
Area opponents of the project are happy to see the surge of opposition from their elected officials; still, some question the delay.
“Why did it take a year for them to say what landowners (and) townspeople have been begging them to say?” Sarah Lounder, co-founder of Winchester Pipeline Awareness, asked in a Facebook comment. “In the meantime, this disaster has moved ahead with very little opposition from elected officials in (New Hampshire).”
She also questioned whether the timing of next year’s elections played a role in their decisions to oppose the project.
“This is not about winning an election for us,” Lounder wrote. “This is about saving our homes (and) where we live.”
Ayotte’s press secretary, Lauren Zelt, said the senator has, for months, been pushing for answers to “fundamental questions” and remains frustrated that FERC and the U.S. Department of Energy Inspector General have not delivered.
Kuster said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that she decided to issue her statement Wednesday because the pipeline’s filing has been finalized with FERC, and the federal agency is preparing to take the next steps in the approval process.
She, too, has been assessing the project for months, including visiting some of the areas expected to be affected. It enabled her to reach a preliminary conclusion, she said.
“What I’m saying is I don’t believe the case has been made by the company proposing the pipeline that the benefits of lower cost energy would outweigh the detriment to the potential towns,” she said.
In coming weeks, Kuster and Ayotte say they plan to file their opposition to the pipeline with FERC.