A look at Liberty Utilities proposed underground gas pipeline

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A map of the projected Granite Bridge pipeline route./GraniteBridgeNH.org

MANCHESTER, NHLiberty Utilities is proposing a natural gas pipeline that would be installed 732 feet (a little over a tenth of a mile) from Manchester’s public water source, Lake Massabesic. As part of the state approval process, the company will need to address risks to the city water supply during construction, as well as the long-term environmental impact.

They will also need to win over local residents during the lengthy approval process ahead. Activist group Echo Action is working to raise public awareness around the project, which they oppose. A public “lighted art” vigil planned for Jan. 12 outside the SNHU Arena,  has been postponed due to a rainy forecast. But the group believes the public has a right to know what’s ahead, should the project succeed.

The 16-inch-wide steel underground pipeline, which Liberty calls Granite Bridge, would be installed in the state right-of-way for Route 101. It would run 27 miles, from Stratham to Manchester.

Liberty currently sources gas from the Concord Lateral Pipeline which runs from Dracut, Mass., to Concord, and is owned by Tennessee Gas Pipeline, a Kinder Morgan company. That line was expanded for the 2003 opening of the Granite Ridge Energy plant in Londonderry.

By building Granite Bridge, Liberty could diversify its sources, adding gas from the Canadian-owned Portland Natural Gas Transmission System. Granite Bridge would connect both pipelines, and would be the first local pipeline the company builds, owns and operates itself.

The $340-million proposal includes a liquid natural gas (LNG) storage tank on a 15-acre site on an abandoned quarry in Epping, which is adjacent to Route 101. The tank, with a capacity of 2 billion cubic feet, would store liquefied gas during the summer; and Liberty would then vaporize it for delivery during the high-demand winter months.

Liberty Utilities (also known as EnergyNorth Natural Gas) is a wholly-owned U.S. utilities business of Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp. (NYSE: AQN, TSX: AQN) (“APUC”), with a local office in Londonderry.

Capacity claim disputed

Liberty, which has added 5,000 customers annually since 2012, claims that the gas infrastructure has reached capacity, and has created a website, GraniteBridgeNH.com, where the project is described in some detail, including FAQs.

“In order to support continued economic growth and keep energy costs low, additional natural gas supply is needed,” says the company, which contends in a filing that the Concord Lateral has reached capacity.

The company previously hoped to get natural gas from a new line proposed by Texas-based Kinder Morgan in 2014. The pipeline would have stretched from Pennsylvania to Eastern Massachusetts, passing through southern New Hampshire. The company withdrew its application in 2016 after opposition by residents and environmental groups.

Cunningham

Greg Cunningham, director of Conservation Law Foundation’s clean energy and climate change program, disputes the capacity claim in a January 2018 op/ed published in Commonweath Magazine:

“If expanding gas pipelines makes economic sense, then why haven’t the petroleum giants invested their own money to make it happen? It’s simple: they consider it too big a risk to put down their own money, so they’d rather gamble with ours.

“But we know better and have the studies to prove it. These include analyses commissioned by consumer watchdogs at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and the Maine Public Utilities Commission and from some of the best energy consulting firms in the country. They conclude that the costs of gas pipeline expansions outweigh any potential benefits. Another study found that, rather than save money, a new pipeline would result in overall net costs of as much as $277 million for New England electricity consumers. These economic flaws, along with legal impediments, spelled the demise of Kinder Morgan’s huge Northeast Energy Direct pipeline and caused the funding scheme for Spectra’s massive Access Northeast proposals to be rejected by state courts and utility commissions,” Cunningham wrote in a recent.

Pipeline would give access to towns on its route, but at what cost?

In a filing, Liberty wrote, “the Granite Bridge Project will provide the opportunity for energy choice to businesses and residents in currently unserved communities along Route 101.” These towns include Brentwood, Epping, Raymond, Candia, and Auburn.

Energy activists make the argument that included along with natural gas line service, the towns along Route 101 also should be getting disclosures about the costs associated with building distribution lines, and any needed metering and regulating stations.  They believe It should be up to people living in those towns to consider where they would like to site a metering and regulating station, and what the health and safety risks are for people living near them.

Impact on ratepayers an open question

Liberty spokesman John Shore said Granite Bridge would increase customers’ gas bills by about $2 dollars a month, compared to an increase of about $12 a month if Liberty paid to upgrade existing infrastructure. Shore said if they do nothing, bills will increase as Liberty runs out of room to grow.

Maurice (“Donald”) Kreis, Consumer Advocate with the state Office of the Consumer Advocate, says there’s no way to predict the future.

“We will do an analysis of the impact on ratepayers. It’s challenging because your analysis is future-oriented so it’s only as good as the projections you make about what’s likely to happen in the future. We don’t know where the price of gas is going to go between now and 2038,” Kreis said.

“The project may be unnecessary or too big, depending on what our review tells us. Utilities like to build things because that’s how they make their money. They build assets into a rate base, and get a return on them. Our job is to make sure the utilities only do what is necessary in order to provide safe and reliable service to the public at the lowest possible cost,”  Kreis said

Lengthy approval process started in December

Liberty filed its petition for approval to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on December 21. This begins a formal, administrative proceeding that may be complete by the end of the year.

“There will be a pretty rigorous process to examine what they are proposing with skepticism,” said Kreis. The state Office of Consumer Advocate will participate in the PUC hearings.

If the PUC approves it, the project will next need approval from the state Site Evaluation Committee.

Consumer Advocate criticizes state process

By state law, utilities must provide a plan for “least cost integrated resource planning.”  It is intended to ensure that utilities plan their systems in a way that is supposed to be the least cost overall for the consumers, and was last revised in 2014.  

Krieis said, “I don’t think we’re doing a very good job with that in New Hampshire right now, and I would like to see that process improved. This proposal from Liberty is the result of a process that is not as rigorous as I would like it to be. Does it really consider all of the possible alternatives, versus just having utilities build all kinds of stuff, and having customers pay for it?”

“You hear the governor and the policymakers talk about the need for more energy infrastructure. I think they’re right: We do need more energy infrastructure, but we want to build the right amount of these, and the right types. I expect the PUC proceedings to be very lively, because there will be lots of intervenors, and most, if not all of them, will be extremely skeptical about what Liberty is proposing,” Kreis said.

Natural gas challenged as polluting, fossil fuel

Local energy activists also are challenging Liberty’s claims that replacing oil consumption with gas is a greener option for NH. Projected carbon emissions reductions of 30 percent through high-efficiency burners could be realized just as well with energy efficiency programs, they maintain, a point that Cunningham underscored in a July Conservation Law Foundation editorial.

Cunningham wrote, “New England is moving on from polluting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. Now is not the time to build more dirty energy infrastructure. Instead, it’s time to double down on home-grown clean energy resources and prepare for our healthier future.”

Local group urges public action, plans Manchester light vigil

Echo Action wrote, “The time to stop pipelines is before they are at our doorstep. The utilities are proposing segmented pipeline routes that seem innocuous to those who are not watching closely.”

The group planned to host a lighted art vigil in opposition to Granite Bridge on Jan. 12 outside the SNHU Arena, but has since postponed the vigil due to heavy rain in the forecast. They say they plan to reschedule the event. You can follow along via this Facebook Event page.

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