Editorial: Independent review makes sense on Berkshire Gas moratorium

If you find yourself questioning the moratorium Berkshire Gas has in place forbidding new customers or expanded uses in parts of Franklin and Hampshire counties, including Amherst, Deerfield, Greenfield and Hadley, you’re not alone.

Only the most naive would accept at face value the company’s explanation that it has suddenly and unexpectedly run out of capacity for meeting natural gas needs in the Pioneer Valley. Just as likely to raise eyebrows is the conveniently coincidental timing of the moratorium and the push for the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline that Tennessee Gas Co. wants to build through area towns.

Thankfully, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg of Amherst is among the people who possess a healthy skepticism when it comes to the moratorium and pipeline proposal. We were happy to hear recently that Rosenberg had asked the company to lift the moratorium and pursue less-drastic ways to meet the region’s energy needs.

“The moratorium is having, and will continue to have, a negative impact on economic growth in the region,” Rosenberg wrote to Karen Zink, president and chief operating officer of Berkshire Gas. “I have heard from many indicating that their business and residential projects are stalled because they cannot access the system. This is deeply troubling, especially in light of the recent recession and its lingering effects.”

The Senate president, who represents much of Franklin and Hampshire counties, is correct. With climate change and changes in the energy production market, natural gas has been touted as a bridge to a clean energy future. While the issue of meeting increased demand has been in the background of discussions about New England’s energy needs, Berkshire Gas and other suppliers have been pushing until recently to add more residential and commercial customers.

How, then, could the company have failed to foresee that demand would surpass capacity before suddenly enacting its moratorium in December 2014? And how could the company be unprepared to find alternative sources should the Northeast Energy Direct project fail to materialize?

“Public and private entities have been slow in planning to address the anticipated shortfall,” Rosenberg said in a recent interview. “If the pipeline doesn’t come through, they still have the same problem.” Berkshire Gas is going all-out to make sure this pipeline is built. Along with seeking state Department of Public Utilities approval for a long-term agreement to use gas from the NED project, the utility’s parent company, UIL Holdings Corp., signed an agreement last month to acquire a 2.5 percent interest in the proposed pipeline. The line would go from the New York border through a number of communities in Berkshire and Franklin counties to its terminus in Dracut.

Berkshire Gas maintains that should the project fail to materialize, the moratorium will remain in place indefinitely. That stance is counter to the region’s interests and the company’s as well.

This could be why Berkshire Gas has agreed to Rosenberg’s request that the company “hire independent consultants to look at alternatives to the moratorium and assess how to better meet our region’s gas needs.”

This examination should include such options as conservation, increasing the capacity of existing pipelines, boosting liquefied natural gas storage and extending a lateral line from an existing pipeline along an existing right of way.

Rosenberg thinks that this independent analysis, along with the attorney general’s own study of Massachusetts’ energy future, will offer avenues to overcome the challenges the state faces. That information could also help convert skeptics to believers in a plan that balances the public’s needs with corporate ambitions.