Activists question if Keene’s part of effort to create demand for natural gas infrastructure

By Meghan, Keene Foley Sentinel
June 14, 2017

Area climate change and renewable energy activists plan to hold a vigil ahead of Thursday’s Keene City Council meeting to highlight what they say are contradictory discussions likely to take place.

The 15-member City Council, provided it suspends its rules of order, is slated to discuss a resolution submitted by seven councilors last week to have Keene join other U.S. cities in the Climate Mayors network “in adopting and supporting the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Councilors are also expected to decide whether to accept a recommendation from a council subcommittee to discontinue part of Production Avenue so Liberty Utilities can install a temporary compressed natural gas facility.

It’s the final approval the firm needs for the project, which the planning board gave the go-ahead to last month.

Instead of a natural gas system, Keene has a decades-old propane-air distribution system that has been problematic in recent years.

Liberty Utilities purchased the system in January 2015 from N.H. Gas Corp.

In December of that year, a malfunction at the system’s production facility caused by a power outage led to pure propane being distributed to customers.

The result was a city-wide emergency that included four people being taken to the hospital, more than 1,000 homes and businesses being checked for carbon monoxide exposure, and 75 fire departments from across New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, as well as several state agencies, responding to the city.

The system experienced a similar, but smaller-scale, malfunction in February 2016.

Liberty officials have said they eventually want to replace the temporary facility with a permanent one.

Stances at odds?

“It will be an odd juxtaposition if the City Council simultaneously affirms a commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement while approving plans to install new fossil fuel infrastructure throughout the city,” Kathryn R. Eiseman, president of Pipe Line Awareness Network for the Northeast Inc., said in an email to The Sentinel.

The nonprofit group works at the state and federal levels to prevent the overbuild of fossil fuel infrastructure, including natural gas. It formed in opposition to the proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project, which would have crossed a broad swath of southern New Hampshire.

Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, proposed the pipeline in November 2014 to carry fracked natural gas from the shale fields of northern Pennsylvania to a hub in Dracut, Mass. The firm withdrew its application for federal approval for the project in May 2016, saying that not enough customers had signed up to buy natural gas from the pipeline.

Monadnock Region residents Stephanie Scherr and Susan L. Durling — members of ECHO Action, a local group that formed to fight the pipeline project and promote the use of renewable energy — agree with Eiseman’s assessment.

“It’s crazy they could pass this in one breath, and then consider the Paris Climate Accord in the next,” Durling said.

ECHO Action is coordinating Thursday’s vigil, which will start at 5:30 p.m. outside Keene City Hall, and is also encouraging people to attend the 7 p.m. meeting in council chambers. They’re also asking people who oppose Liberty Utilities’ Keene project and the expansion of natural gas infrastructure statewide and nationally to contact Mayor Kendall W. Lane with their concerns.

Scherr noted that the city has a climate action plan and a climate adaptation plan. And it has been at the forefront in the region and state for combating climate change and promoting the conservation of electricity and use of renewable energy sources, she said.

While backing the Paris Agreement is much in the city’s character, supporting the Liberty Utilities project, is out of line for the community, Scherr said. And she described Liberty Utilities’ proposal as part of a larger effort to make New England and the nation more dependent on natural gas.

Eiseman, Scherr and Durling say city officials, residents and others must look at the larger picture — specifically, at what they say is an effort by Liberty to create a demand to restart the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project.

Liberty Utilities through its spokesman, John Shore, denied the claim. Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard N. Wheatley said he didn’t “have a comment to offer.”

“Looking at Liberty Utilities’ expansion plans throughout southern New Hampshire, it’s hard to conclude that new natural gas infrastructure is a bridge to anything other than more natural gas dependence and infrastructure,” Eiseman said.

Other projects

Liberty is the largest natural gas distribution utility in New Hampshire. It has more than 90,000 customers in more than 30 cities and towns. It’s also the subsidiary of Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp., which was participating in the development of the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline.

Besides the Keene project, Liberty Utilities is expanding natural gas service to Windham and Pelham off existing pipeline infrastructure in the region.

Liberty also has a petition pending before the N.H. Public Utilities Commission to construct a natural gas distribution system to serve Hanover and Lebanon.

Last year, the N.H. Public Utilities Commission approved Liberty Utilities’ $1.9 million purchase of Concord Steam’s assets, including its customer information, provided customers gave consent.

According to the Nov. 10, 2016 order, Liberty planned to use the information in “facilitating conversions of Concord Steam customers to gas service in an orderly fashion.”

Concord Steam, which was created in 1938, operated a system that burned wood chips at a power plant to make steam sent throughout underground pipes used for heating. Facing financial difficulties and unable to fund necessary upgrades to its power plant, the company and its system shut down on May 31.

As a result, many of the company’s customers, including the N.H. State House, 25 state office buildings, and Concord School District having to find an alternative heating source. Both the state and school district have chosen natural gas.

“None of these projects you listed are in any way an attempt by Liberty to create artificial need in order to revive the NED project. It is important to look at each one of these projects on their own, as they each have their own set of circumstances,” Shore said in an email.

When Liberty purchased the Keene franchise, it stated its intent to convert the system to natural gas, he said. The franchise has 1,250 customers.

“It will lower pricing for customers and it will increase reliability. The fuel will be provided by a third party, who was selected by a competitive solicitation. The third party will truck in natural gas that will be taken off pipelines unrelated to the withdrawn NED Project,” Shore said.

He also noted that former Concord Stream customers have “a number of choices on what fuel to use to heat their buildings. They are under no obligation to use natural gas.”

Pipeline opponents aren’t convinced.

“Personally, I do not think it is a coincidence that Liberty Utilities has focused on the most powerful economic centers in New Hampshire to expand their offerings. If the export plans go through, those towns; Concord, Pelham, Keene, Lebanon, and Hanover will be clamoring for pipelines to relieve the pressure on pricing,” Martin wrote in a letter Tuesday to Keene Mayor Kendall Lane, which she shared with The Sentinel.

Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.

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