August 12. 2018 2:54PM

New Granite Bridge gas pipeline gains support

By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader


 

CONCORD - Proposals to build natural gas pipelines through New Hampshire have failed in the past two years, but a new project on a smaller scale is quietly gaining momentum.

The Granite Bridge Project proposed by Liberty Utilities has strong legislative support and the backing of Gov. Chris Sununu. Last Tuesday the project was endorsed by the state Business and Industry Association, which described it as critical to the state's economy.

"Natural gas is consistently 40 to 60 percent less expensive than alternative heating fuels," BIA President Jim Roche said. "Without Granite Bridge, some businesses looking to expand or relocate in New Hampshire will choose not to bear the higher cost of alternative fuels and will choose to grow elsewhere."

There is emerging opposition from Pipe Line Awareness Network for the North East (PLAN-NE), which was born in the successful 2016 battle to stop energy company Kinder Morgan from constructing a 412-mile pipeline through portions of eastern New York, northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

The organization formed to fight Kinder Morgan's Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline, then turned its attention to another big project designed to increase the flow of natural gas into New England - Access Northeast.

That plan called for upgrades to the existing Algonquin pipeline system in Connecticut and Massachusetts with bigger pipe, new compressor stations, additional laterals and new storage facilities for liquefied natural gas.

Access Northeast stalled when the state Public Utilities Commission ruled last year against a request by Eversource to purchase space on the pipeline, which would help finance its construction. Eversource appealed to the state Supreme Court, which in May sent the case back to the PUC for reconsideration.

Aggressive outreach

As those projects floundered, Liberty Utilities worked behind the scenes to build support for Granite Bridge before it was even made public. Liberty is the state's largest provider of natural gas for heating, with approximately 92,000 customers located throughout the Merrimack River valley from Nashua to the Lakes Region.

"They learned a thing or two from NED," said Pat Martin, a member of PLAN-NE and a candidate for state representative in the Rindge-Fitzwilliam district. "They conducted interviews or conversations with all the state senators, several representatives whose districts were involved, and all the community leaders, before any of the people had any idea what was going on."

In May, 22 of 24 state senators endorsed the project, with Senate President Chuck Morse saying at the time, "It is clear that Liberty Utilities has listened closely to New Hampshire's citizens and proposed a project that minimizes impacts and provides access to needed natural gas."

Many of those meetings took place in November 2017. On Dec. 4, Liberty officially announced its plan to invest $340 million to build the 27-mile underground pipeline along Route 101, with a liquefied natural gas storage facility to be built in Epping.

The pipeline from Manchester to Stratham would be built in a state-designated energy corridor along the state highway, with the storage facility to be built in an abandoned quarry south of Route 101 and west of Route 125. The 16-inch pipe would create an east-to-west connection between two existing pipelines that run south-to-north.

Early in the process

The idea is to capture natural gas from the big south-to-north pipelines during the summer, when demand is low, and store it in the Epping facility for use in the winter, when supplies are tight.

The project must still be approved by the Public Utilities Commission and then the Site Evaluation Committee. Based on the company's current timeline, assuming all approvals are forthcoming, pipeline construction would be finished in 2021 with work on the storage facility completed in 2022.

"We filed with the PUC in December of 2017. We are hopeful those proceedings will conclude by December of this year. If we are granted approval from the PUC, we will file with the SEC during the first quarter of 2019," Liberty spokesman John Shore said.

It's still early in the process, and the opposition has yet to take a formal position in filings with the PUC, but they are mobilizing.

"Right now we are in the process with our gas market expert and energy attorney of gathering information through discovery and analyzing the data," said Katy Eiseman, president and CEO of PLAN-NE. "But our sense is that this is far more capacity than Liberty can really justify. That said, we have not finished our analysis and there is still a lot of confidential information we don't get access to. We rely on our experts, who have signed non-disclosure agreements."

Meeting future demand

Shore says the Granite Bridge Project is designed to meet the growing needs of current New Hampshire customers and to accommodate future growth, as more households and businesses seek to switch from heating oil to natural gas.

"We are not asking people to take our word for it. We have to prove it to the PUC," he said. "We must prove to the PUC that this is the lowest cost option for our customers."

According to Shore, the existing pipeline that serves Liberty customers is near capacity.

"If we don't do something to find additional capacity for our customers, we will be forced to turn down new requests for service," he said. "This will severely hamper economic growth in New Hampshire. Existing businesses may not be able to expand their operations, new businesses may not locate here and pricing will continue to increase for everyone because of the high demand and limited supply."

Attorney Donald Kreis, the state-appointed consumer advocate on utility issues, believes the project could raise rates for natural gas, as the cost of the new construction is built into future rates. That's a key issue the PUC will have to sort out.

"The hurdles are less formidable for Liberty than they were for Northeast Energy Direct," Kreis said, "but there are still big issues that Liberty needs to address. It's interesting and noteworthy that 22 of 24 senators have endorsed the project, but it's the PUC and then the SEC that decide, not the New Hampshire Senate."

dsolomon@unionleader.com