There’s an old saying about “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” which seems to apply to trees. But to Katy Eiseman, a version of that might be “the bigger they are, the harder it is to get them to fall,” referring to big utility projects.
The answer, she suggests, is to get everybody pushing in the same direction.
“What is needed to fight these massive kinds of projects that are so big that everybody thinks are totally inevitable and can’t be stopped,” says Eiseman, president of the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the North East (PLAN-NE), “is pressure. You just don’t know what the pressure points are going to be, so you need to activate all of them.”
A problem from Pennsylvania
PLAN’s success at doing just that, across Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, came from a careful building process that ultimately was instrumental in ending Kinder Morgan’s application to build a natural gas pipeline from fracked wells in Pennsylvania to a terminal in Dracut, MA.
Kinder Morgan (KM) bills itself as “the largest energy infrastructure company in North America,” which has “an interest in or operate[s] approximately 84,000 miles of pipelines and approximately 180 terminals.” The project, dubbed Northeast Energy Direct by KM, was proposed to carry gas fracked from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania through more than 50 communities across New York, Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.
According to PLAN, the main line involved “100-foot-wide clear cuts through forests, running of the pipeline under rivers, affecting aquifers, wetlands, protected public land and private property,” and “above-ground components including four compressor stations in three states of 80,000 horsepower or higher, where the pressure of the gas is maintained and also regulated by venting the gas directly into the atmosphere.” The gas in question (not to mention residual fracking chemicals) is methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2 over a 100-year period.
The environmental destruction associated with construction, the ongoing risk of pipeline rupture, the disruption to rural communities of the compressor stations and the need for a transition to alternative energy sources to combat climate change, as well as the dangers posed by fracking, spurred Eiseman and some friends to action.
First focus was fracked gas
“I started with a group of people in western Massachusetts who learned about the proposed project, some of whom were directly impacted landowners, who felt the need to do something,” she recounts. “The No Fracked Gas in Mass website got set up, but I was concerned about the name in terms of dealing with regulators and with people in eastern Massachusetts who use natural gas, people who may have a NIMBY attitude but who may not be opposed to fracked gas.”
“I realized we needed to have a more neutral attitude in the name,” she adds, reflecting the savvy that helped to make PLAN so effective. “No Fracked Gas in Mass has been very successful in reaching and motivating people, but we needed a more neutrally named organization to connect with a broader group of people.”
Initially, the new organization’s name was the Massachusetts Pipe Line Awareness Network (MassPLAN), and it was “a coalition of people in various organizations, as well as groups that were formed specifically to fight the pipeline across Massachusetts,” Eiseman says. “I set up the MassPLAN website and started to branch out to groups in the central and eastern part of the state and we started raising money for the legal fight.”
Prepared for regulatory and legal battles
The ability to be effective in FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), state utility commission, and other regulatory hearings and possibly in state courts would be critical, PLAN members knew. They organized regionally as a nonprofit corporation in large part to be able to consolidate fundraising efforts to pay for these legal and technical experts, Eiseman notes, and to better position ourselves to have standing in regulatory proceedings.
“It was important to be able to pool resources so that different groups weren’t all hiring different lawyers,” she says, “so it was important to have a cohesive organization”—especially for communication.
Things got more complicated when the path of the pipeline got “bumped up” into New Hampshire, Eiseman explains. “We knew we were going to be active in fighting the precedent agreements—the contracts between the pipeline companies and the utilities—and, as it turned out, the first one to be filed was with the New Hampshire PUC. We knew that Mass Plan could not be the group fighting this or well-suited to be interacting in the New Hampshire proceedings,” she says.
Widening the circle of influence
That was when leaders of MassPLAN joined forces with leaders in New Hampshire and formed the Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast, PLAN-NE.
“There were several different list serves set up and there were list serves within towns and regions; that’s how we did a lot of organizing on the grassroots level was to have that communications network set, including local landowners and activists,” with PLAN serving as a coordinating umbrella, providing “consistent, vetted, usable information,” Eiseman says.
“So that’s how we really organized at the grassroots level. There were town-level groups who were doing their own thing,” she says, but for consistent messaging it was vital to have access to a central source of information. “They were counting on us for that, and we were counting on them for information on the ground, to tell us what’s going on at the local level with select board meetings and if Kinder Morgan was coming to meet with the select board or local utilities, we would know that.”
The group was able to mobilize people “from across the region for FERC hearings, or whatever was happening; we would be able to go to the FERC scoping hearings or the Kinder Morgan open houses,” she says, adding that PLAN coordinated getting people together to “talk strategy and plan for these various events, hearings and meetings.”
PLAN also did some fundraising, but “we counted on the local groups to come up with different ways of fund raising that work for them, so there were concerts and ‘not-in-anyone’s-backyard’ yard sales and all sorts of local events to fund raise to pay for the legal and technical experts and everything that we were doing,” Eiseman says.
In 2015, the Grassroots Fund issued an $850 Seed grant to PLAN-NE to pay for a post office box, state filing fees, and initial anti-pipeline outreach materials to be used in some 50 communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “We saw an opportunity to fill a gap in their needs at a time when PLAN was just beginning to build momentum and gain support,” says Grassroots Fund Executive Director Julia Dundorf. “The issues they were confronting and the true grassroots organizing nature of the work made helping them over a little hurdle very attractive to us.”
The information sharing was not just among grassroots people, however, Eiseman says, because “part of what we were able to do is use various connections to the clean energy groups and the land trusts and the environmental groups, to get information to them but also to get information from them that we could use and then spread it to the grassroots.” She says coordinating all the levels of communication to all the different groups of different sizes and interests “was sort of like air traffic control.”
It served to activate all the pressure points, Eiseman says, and KM withdrew their application with FERC in late May. “I think it was so many different pieces together. Fundamentally it was—as they said—there wasn’t enough need, they weren’t lining up enough business, and that’s partly because there was so much pressure on every contract and it was so difficult for them at every level,” she says, adding “there were efforts on the regulatory level to be organized and on the political front, to have every legislator along the entire route opposing the project certainly was in our favor.”
Start early, mind your allies
Eiseman says timing is critical to success. “Get involved as early as possible. We we’re fortunate that we learned about the project more than six months before the filing. If they file again,” she notes, “they’re going to do as much as they can to keep quiet about it until they get something to FERC. So having landowners and, ultimately, regulatory objections in line ahead of time” is vital, she says, cautioning, however, that every project will be different.
“The weak point may be different for every different project, so you can’t assume that what was the right thing, the game plan, for one is going to be the right game plan for another,” Eiseman says. “Also from town to town, building local resistance is going to be different; western Massachusetts, for instance, is very liberal and our representatives are very liberal, but our allies in New Hampshire, as well as in central Mass, are conservative Republicans,” she notes, “so it’s important for people not to think of it as a single party or political issue, because you don’t want to alienate a potential ally and there are all sorts of potential allies out there.”
A new model emerged
Finally, Eiseman says, an exciting outcome of the effort is the creation of a model of action that works. “A major victory out of stopping this pipeline has been all sorts of networking that has been unusual for the established groups,” she says. “To be realizing and using this sort of cooperation and people on the ground in this way, the different kinds of collaboration across all different sorts of organizations and citizens on the ground, is really the kind of model that is needed to fight these massive kinds of projects.
“It really is a movement,” Eiseman says. “PLAN, our organization, was focusing on the regulatory and legal side and information sharing to be more effective on the regulatory and political front end. But there was also definitely a separate and overlapping tier of nonviolent direct action and the broader movement,” she adds, noting that they were successful in keeping “clear lines, so that things didn’t get murky for us on the regulatory side.”
All the pressure points were pushed, and the project fell.