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Utility Must Resubmit Gas Plan

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2016 12:37:02 AM
Modified: 10/11/2016 12:37:05 AM

Concord — The Public Utilities Commission on Monday rejected a bid by Liberty Utilities to build and operate a natural gas facility in Lebanon, saying not enough information was known about the business plan for its initial site along Route 12A and that the process would have to restart to consider what had been a competing site along the Route 120 corridor.

A spokesman for Liberty said it will push forward with plans and reapply.

The PUC ruled that Liberty's request for a franchise was “premature” because a business plan for its preliminary site south of the West Lebanon landfill along Route 12A is still in the works. While the decision doesn’t stop the utility from pursuing a future approval, it could set progress back.

The company reached an accord with with Hanover developer Jay Campion, who had sought approval for a natural gas depot off Route 120, but withdrew his PUC petition last month. Campion has won zoning approval from the city of Lebanon for the site, which is near major employers and Lebanon High School.

The PUC also said it would open a new docket if Liberty files a new petition and supporting materials “once it has fully developed its business plan.”

“It’s a change in procedure or a different procedure than what we anticipated,” Liberty spokesman John Shore said of the ruling.

He said the PUC decision shouldn’t be seen as a setback, and the company intends to file another petition soon.

Even if Liberty can quickly request another review, the commission’s decision was likely an unwelcome surprise for the company’s lawyers. The utility recently negotiated a deal with competitor Valley Green Natural Gas, and hoped to introduce more information to the commission.

Liberty now has an option from Campion to use the Valley Green site, and has also contracted for a new market analysis that would go into a five-year business plan for gas distribution in Lebanon and Hanover.

With those developments ongoing, Liberty asked to present new information to the commission, highlighting its plans for the area. But the commission disagreed.

“There was a concern that because the new evidence wasn’t provided with the motion, the commission couldn’t make a determination about its value,” said Amanda Noonan, director of consumer services and external affairs at the PUC.

Companies can typically provide additional details to the commission after a hearing, she said, but that evidence is usually refresher information, not substantive changes. In its ruling the PUC found Liberty’s request would “fundamentally alter the evidence in the case and require additional discovery and hearing.”

Noonan said commissioners also worried about how new information would be presented. By requiring the company to file again, the commission ensured a new hearing and discovery process, she said.

“The PUC is saying to Liberty ‘we know this is not an uncontroversial subject and we think it would be more appropriate for us to start at square one,” said Donald Kreis, the state’s Consumer Advocate. “I think it creates a little more work for Liberty in the near-term but I think it makes a lot more sense in the long-term.”

Kreis said new hearings should provide a more thoughtful and appropriate process going forward, where Liberty will be able to properly lay out its plans for natural gas. It’s likely that process will begin soon, he said.

“A utility like Liberty, this is what it does for a living. It has people who work full time for the company who are in the business of preparing petitions,” Kreis said, adding the company could be back before the PUC relatively soon.

Campion, who is now consulting for Liberty, said the utility will likely do just that.

“I don’t think the plans change much,” he said. “I think you’re looking at potentially a couple of months delay for Liberty to get back into the PUC.”

But that isn’t stopping opponents of the proposal from celebrating. Ariel Arwen, a member of Lebanon’s Energy Advisory Committee and an intervenor in the case, said she was pleasantly surprised to see the decision.

“This is what we were hoping for because it gives the community more time to explore how to become 100 percent renewable,” she said.

As Liberty prepares another petition, communities have a chance to explore energy options not tied to fossil fuels, she said.

“To bring natural gas to the Upper Valley is unconscionable and we truly need to intensify our political will, our understanding, our research to find how we can skip over natural gas as a bridge fuel,” Arwen said.

State Rep. Lee Oxenham, D-Plainfield, saw the PUC decision as tied to recent advances in renewable energy. At the same time New Hampshire regional neighbors push for more renewables, technology is improving quickly.

“I see this decision as part and parcel of a reorientation” on how states think of energy, said Oxenham, a former researcher at the National Academy of Sciences who opposes the project, said. “I think (the PUC) would have gone along with this proposal if it had come up even 6 months ago.” 

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


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