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NiSource utility cancels Mass. pipe project, citing local natural gas opposition

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts canceled a project meant to increase natural gas supply into the western part of the state, saying the decision was due in part to weak prospects for growth in light of local political opposition to new gas pipelines.

The NiSource Inc. subsidiary announced on Oct. 11 that it was abandoning the Alternate Backfeed component of its Greater Springfield Service Territory Reliability Project, a five-part plan to improve gas delivery in Western Massachusetts. The decision means a moratorium on new gas hookups in the city of Northampton and the town of Westhampton will continue indefinitely.

Columbia Gas determined the cost of the Alternate Backfeed, a 6-mile pipeline comprised of 12-inch pipe, now outweighs the benefits of the project. But the company also chalked up its decision to an October 2018 Northampton City Council resolution opposing gas pipeline infrastructure expansion.

Columbia Gas President and COO Mark Kempic said "there is likely to be limited new growth in Northampton. More importantly, Mayor [David] Narkewicz and the City Council of Northampton have stated they are not interested in additional gas service to their community."

The cancellation marked another instance in which local gas distribution companies seeking to boost supply through new infrastructure have found themselves in conflict with state and local officials. A rise in municipal measures meant to sideline natural gas, largely over climate change concerns, has unsettled the industry.

The company said it will continue to replace leak-prone pipe and implement energy efficiency and load management measures to provide reliable service to existing customers in Northampton.

The four other parts of the Greater Springfield reliability project — first announced in November 2017 — will go forward, Columbia Gas said. Those include a new point of delivery in Longmeadow, Mass., as well as an upgrade to a compressor station and a new 2-mile pipeline loop in Agawam, Mass. The company's interstate pipeline provider, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., will undertake those three projects, while Columbia Gas is responsible for a fourth, replacing 8,500 feet of existing line in Springfield, Mass.

"Columbia Gas currently has an existing and growing winter season deficiency due to transmission pipeline constraints," Kempic said. "The four remaining projects allow the current supply volume on the system to be distributed more efficiently, safely and reliably as well as enable greater system operating flexibility."

Massachusetts regulators recently required Columbia Gas to seek approval before performing most construction work. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities put the restrictions in place after Columbia Gas discovered restoration work on its distribution system that did not comply with safety regulations, including a violation that caused a large gas leak.

Columbia Gas, formally known as Bay State Gas Co., has been under intense scrutiny since a critical failure during a 2018 pipeline replacement project led to a catastrophic series of fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley in northwestern Massachusetts.