WINCHESTER — What has been a mostly easy decision for officials in 14 towns along the proposed path of a controversial natural gas pipeline, has been a struggle for selectmen here.
To join, or not to join the N.H. Municipal Pipeline Coalition? The question has surfaced during several Winchester selectmen meetings since southern New Hampshire communities started banning together in January against the planned Northeast Energy Direct pipeline.
Late last month, the majority of Winchester selectmen finally answered in the affirmative, joining Amherst, Brookline, Fitzwilliam, Greenville, Litchfield, Mason, Merrimack, Milford, New Ipswich, Pelham, Richmond, Rindge, Temple and Troy.
Together, representatives from the communities meet regularly about the proposed pipeline. The only cost is for legal services.
Brookline Town Administrator Tad Putney, who represents that town on the coalition, said last week being part of the group is a way for towns to share information, and have greater strength in effectively opposing the pipeline as a group instead of individually.
Twelve of the 14 towns have signed on to be involved in legal matters with the coalition, which is represented by a lawyer, he said. He expects Winchester will become the 13th community to be part of that group, he said.
Meanwhile, two other towns that aren’t on the pipeline route, but nearby, have expressed interest in joining the coalition, he said. He declined to name the communities.
Winchester residents and non-residents, particularly those associated with the Winchester Pipeline Awareness group — and officials from neighboring towns — had pushed Winchester selectmen for months to take a stand and at least join the coalition. But board members wouldn’t vote, saying they needed more information about costs the town could face if it joined the coalition, and more information about the pipeline project.
That was until Sept. 30, when Winchester selectmen voted 4-1 to join the coalition and donate $500 toward its legal fees. Selectman Theresa G. Sepe was the dissenting vote.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a Kinder Morgan company, is proposing the transmission pipeline, which would carry natural gas from shale gas fields in Pennsylvania through upstate New York, parts of northern Massachusetts and into southern New Hampshire before going to a distribution hub in eastern Massachusetts.
The pipeline’s proposed route has it crossing about 70 miles of southern New Hampshire, including the Cheshire County towns of Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester, and carrying up to 2.2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas — an amount equivalent to providing electricity for 1.5 million households.
Kinder Morgan officials say the influx of natural gas into New Hampshire will drive down high winter energy costs, and help prevent an energy shortage in the region.
Members of the pipeline awareness groups in the region question those claims, and say the pipeline will do more harm than good to the communities it passes through.
The vote last month came as a surprise, albeit a welcome one, for Susan L. Durling, a founding member of Winchester Pipeline Awareness, who attended the meeting.
Durling said she had no idea Selectmen Chairwoman Roberta A. Fraser was going to start the meeting talking about the pipeline and in such strong terms that it would be of no benefit to the community, and therefore the town should join the coalition.
A message left for Fraser wasn’t returned by press time Saturday.
“We are very glad the town finally made this decision,” Durling said. “We hope this means a change in the tide, and town officials are going to step up and help their citizens understand what is going on with the pipeline, and reach out to them to education them.”
She said resident Christopher Steadman will be the town’s representative to the N.H. Municipal Pipeline Coalition.