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Pipeline Opponents Seek To Overturn Approval

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2018 12:24:56 AM
Modified: 4/11/2018 12:25:03 AM

Lebanon — Opponents of Liberty Utilities’ proposed natural gas line in Lebanon and Hanover are pursuing a double-barreled strategy to overturn the regulatory approval the project received last month: They’re asking regulators to rehear the case based on the company’s failure to comply with a previous order, and they’re asking the project be put on hold until the company’s five-year plan is reviewed.

In a motion filed with the Public Utilities Commission last week, Lebanon resident Jonathan Chaffee argues the company missed a March 20 filing deadline to provide additional information about its plans for the Upper Valley.

The PUC on March 5 awarded Liberty Utilities a franchise needed to construct a pipeline from West Lebanon to Hanover. The company plans to truck natural gas to a “turn-key supply operation” near the Lebanon Landfill on Route 12A and eventually build out to downtown Hanover.

The Upper Valley project is one of several Liberty Utilities has planned for New Hampshire, including the Granite Bridge pipeline, which would run from the Seacoast to Manchester. The pipeline project in Lebanon also should be put on hold until the state reviews Liberty’s future investments and statewide plans, Chaffee said.

In the PUC’s order issued in March, regulators faulted the company for withholding too much information in the business plans it submitted during the roughly year and a half review. Commissioners gave Liberty 15 days to refile documents, which still haven’t been submitted.

“The commission cannot ignore Liberty’s clear contempt in this proceeding and encourage continuing like behavior,” Chaffee said in the motion, which was filed by Litchfield-based attorney Richard Husband.

The proposed pipeline is included in Liberty’s five-year plan for its network of natural gas facilities in New Hampshire, which went under review a month after the PUC heard arguments regarding the Lebanon project, Husband said in an interview on Tuesday.

Under state law, electric and natural gas utilities must file a plan at least every five years that forecasts future demand for its services and details its goals to meet that demand.

It would make sense to halt the pipeline until that larger plan is either approved or denied by state regulators, he said.

“You don’t want to decide the big case and find (a part is) unlawful,” he said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Liberty hadn’t filed the documents requested by the PUC, according to commission spokeswoman Amanda Noonan.

The company has until today to object to Chaffee’s request to rehear the case, she said, adding commissioners then will be allowed another 25 days to issue a decision.

Liberty spokesman John Shore was not available to comment on Tuesday, but he did indicate in an email that the company will file an objection by today’s deadline.

The call to again review Liberty’s pipeline project is part of a larger effort to intensify scrutiny of similar projects in New Hampshire, Husband said.

He hopes to do that by arguing that environmental concerns should play a larger role in PUC reviews. Much of that push, Husband said, will take place during a review of Liberty’s five-year plan, where he is representing Keene City Councilor Terry Clark.

If he’s successful, the fate of proposed pipelines — such as a 27-mile Granite Bridge project — could be in jeopardy.

During PUC proceedings last year, Chaffee and Lebanon and Hanover officials testified that Liberty’s Upper Valley project conflicted with community values and the two municipalities’ energy plans.

Lebanon’s Master Plan favors development of renewable energy projects, City Councilor Clifton Below told the PUC. And Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin argued the pipeline’s construction would flout the wishes of voters, who approved a measure at Town Meeting last year calling for 100 percent of the town’s electric power to come from renewable sources by 2030, with heating and transportation energy meeting that goal by 2050.

Although the PUC acknowledged those concerns in its decision approving the pipeline, commissioners declined to act on them.

Environmental and public policy objections to natural gas are “the purview of the Legislature,” the PUC said, adding opponents didn’t cite any law or regulation that would prevent Liberty from developing its natural gas business to the Upper Valley.

Instead, the commission said it was responsible for reviewing whether Liberty “possesses the financial, managerial and technical expertise to successfully serve customers.”

The commission essentially gave environmental arguments “the back of its hand,” Donald Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate, said on Tuesday.

It’s still not settled whether regulators should take environmental impacts into account when they set out to determine if a project is in the public’s interest, Kreis said, adding that Husband’s argument will raise interesting questions.

While there are some instances where the three-member commission would consider the environment in its reviews, the PUC’s decision-making power is governed by state law, Susan Geiger, a former PUC commissioner, said on Tuesday.

“Authority is derived from statute, so they have to apply different statutes in different cases,” said Geiger, who’s now an attorney at the Concord-based law firm Orr & Reno.

When the PUC reviews energy-efficiency programs proposed by utility companies, they often look at the environmental benefits of those measures, she said. However, Geiger said, the group’s task is generally focused on balancing the needs of ratepayers and those of utility companies.

A review of Liberty’s five-year plan is likely to produce the best shot at challenging the company’s reliance on natural gas and fossil fuels, according to Melissa Birchard, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation’s New Hampshire office.

That’s because, in this case, state law calls on the PUC to scrutinize the company’s plans, prioritizing the proposal’s effects on health and the environment, she said.

“This is making sure that Liberty doesn’t squander its customers’ money on foolhardy investments that are bad for the environment and are bad for public health,” said Birchard, who is participating in the review.

Ultimately, it appears unlikely that the PUC will approve Husband’s call to restart or even halt Liberty’s plans for Lebanon, Kreis said. Instead, he said, conversations regarding Liberty’s investments are better suited for the five-year plan proceedings.

That case is expected to be heard in December, according to a schedule of the proceedings.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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