Column: Don’t Buy This Upper Valley Pipeline

For the Valley News
Published: 8/5/2017 12:02:50 AM
Modified: 8/5/2017 9:00:13 PM

There will be a rally next Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. at Colburn Park in Lebanon against the pipeline. What pipeline? The one that Liberty Utilities proposes to build, snaking from storage tanks south of the Lebanon landfill up Route 12A through the plazas, over Seminary Hill and across the Miracle Mile to Lebanon, then up Route 120 to Hanover, to deliver natural gas to residences and businesses. When you receive a mailing about switching to natural gas for heating, would you be interested? I wouldn’t buy it.

As a citizen intervenor, I am petitioning the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission to deny Liberty’s request for a local franchise to pipe natural gas. The decision will come to a head at a public hearing on Sept. 7. What’s my problem? Liberty says its pipeline will provide a heating fuel choice that’s both cheaper and better for the environment. If you’ve seen smooth TV ads sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, you may believe that natural gas is the hope of America’s future: clean and green and inexhaustible. I don’t buy it.

First, natural gas is not green. In fact, using it for heating is worse for the environment than using propane, oil or even coal. That’s because a small percentage of natural gas leaks, unburned, directly into the atmosphere from wellheads and pipelines. Enough leaks for satellites to visualize it above fracking sites. Enough leaks for satellites to measure a 20 percent increase in global atmospheric methane at the same time as the recent fracking boom. Why worry about some escaped gas? Well, methane, which is what natural gas mostly is, has a huge greenhouse warming effect, 86 times worse in the short term than CO2, according to research done for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yes, burning natural gas emits slightly less CO2 and other pollutants per unit of heat produced than oil or coal, but when you take leaked methane into account, it is overall the worst fossil fuel for heating. Rather than expanding its use, it should be banned, as chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants were banned to save the ozone layer.

And it’s not clean. Most natural gas now comes from fracked wells. The toxic cocktail injected at high pressure into wells to fracture the shale leaks out and poisons water sources. They inject glutaraldehyde, an ingredient in embalming fluid, for heaven’s sake. Increased rates of sickness are documented near fracked wells. And, sometimes, earthquakes. But this is all far away in Pennsylvania, so we shouldn’t worry, right, as long as it’s cheaper?

Don’t buy it. At current prices, natural gas is marginally cheaper than oil, but only if you use lots of heat. Gas is more expensive than oil if your house is efficient. It would cost less to insulate and use oil than to pay to remove your oil equipment and install gas. Extremely efficient electric heat pumps are the heating equipment of the future. They would cost less than gas to heat an insulated house, and cost just a little more to install. For the 20 percent or so of customers heating with propane, gas is cheaper right now. But still don’t buy it.

Because the price is going to go up. It will go up as increasing exports of natural gas limit domestic availability. Don’t be surprised; the petroleum industry will not profit greatly from a few more customers in Lebanon and Hanover. No, the real money is in Europe and China. But new customers are essential to getting the gas overseas. The parent company of Liberty Utilities, Algonquin Power, is partnered with Kinder Morgan in the big Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, intended to connect to coastal terminals but suspended because it was unable to demonstrate adequate market demand. Developers must show additional demand to reapply for approval of such a large pipeline. I think we are pawns in a bigger game. Local customers who sign up for gas will help exports drive the price up, then they’ll be stuck.

Liberty’s franchise will be a monopoly. Unlike oil and propane users, gas customers won’t be able to shop for a better price. The gas price is not regulated as are delivery charges, so when the utility passes increased gas prices on to customers, it will just mean more profit for their business partners.

Are you still thinking, “who cares?” about a pipeline? Local citizens are increasingly focusing their climate change concerns locally. How can we, here, slow the exponential warming of the Earth by weaning ourselves from fossil fuels? There is a hopeful path, through energy efficiency and heat pumps (both air and water source), and biomass, and sourcing electricity renewably generated locally through solar and community solar or from distant solar and offshore wind. Dartmouth College announced on April 22 that it is taking the renewable path. It won’t buy gas. The town of Hanover committed itself to renewables last May 9 and will start this year to transition its town buildings away from fossil fuels. Lebanon committed to renewables in the energy chapter of its Master Plan. Lebanon is now taking steps to generate enough electricity at the landfill to serve all the city’s own operations. It is about to hire a person to focus on the city’s energy use, and is planning a pilot project to aggregate customers for a forward- looking experiment in real-time electricity pricing and a local smart grid (with Liberty Utility’s help!).

These are exciting local developments. Digging up our streets, again, for a pipeline to snare people into buying a terrible fossil fuel is not one of them. That’s the wrong direction.

What could stop it? If nobody bought the gas. The PUC denied an earlier Liberty application because Liberty could not demonstrate any customers. PUC staff has recommended granting approval this time, with the stipulation that construction cannot start until Liberty demonstrates committed customers. So don’t buy it. Ask your neighbors to think twice about buying it. Ask your stores not to buy it. Ask the Public Utilities Commission not to approve it. Look on for information and citations.

And come to Colburn Park on Saturday to learn more about unnatural gas and what can be done to stop the pipeline.

Jon Chaffee lives in West Lebanon. He worked for many years in Upper Valley social services and public housing.

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