Liberty Utilities says it will not build the proposed Granite Bridge natural gas pipeline in Southern New Hampshire, after finding a cheaper way to serve new customers by using existing infrastructure.
The company told the state of the change in plans in a Public Utilities Commission filing Friday afternoon.
The $340-million pipeline plan dated to late 2017 and drew fierce opposition from climate change activists, who oppose any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the region.
Natural gas emits less greenhouse gas than coal or oil, but is still a major driver of climate change. Further dependence on gas, through the pipeline plan and still through Liberty's new alternative, has emerged as a sticking point in the Democratic primary race for governor.
Granite Bridge had bipartisan support in the state legislature, including from Senate Democrats who saw a net benefit in extending gas service to residents and businesses who currently rely on expensive, less climate-friendly heating oil.
Liberty's New Hampshire president Sue Fleck called that "critical" in a statement Friday -- "not only for New Hampshire’s economy and for families’ pocketbooks, but also to enable the deepest, fastest, and most achievable pathway for decarbonizing our economy and taking action on climate change."
OPTING FOR AN EXISTING PIPELINE
Serving new customers was Liberty's original goal in building Granite Bridge, which would have run about 27 miles along Route 101 between Stratham and Manchester -- branching off the Concord Lateral, an existing, mainline gas artery owned by Texas-based Kinder Morgan.
Liberty initially said it would be too expensive to upgrade that larger pipeline to suit their needs. But last fall, PUC staff recommended they revisit that option before Granite Bridge could be approved.
"Natural gas, sold responsibly as a rate-regulated commodity, is compatible with bold climate action," wrote state utility consumer advocate Don Kreis in his column Friday for InDepthNH. "But Granite Bridge was simply too expensive, and too reliant on dreamy estimates of future customer growth, projected too many years into the future."
Liberty’s filing Friday comes in response to the PUC's concerns. It says in recent months, Liberty learned that another user of the Concord Lateral -- Calpine, which used the pipeline to serve its Londonderry power plant -- would not renew its contract, expiring next fall, to use capacity on the pipeline.
This frees up space for Liberty to ink a proposed 20-year contract to run its own gas to new and existing customers on the Concord Lateral. They say it will still involve some upgrades to the pipeline and will cost about $90 million total.
"The new proposal could enable New Hampshire to eliminate more than 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions while preserving energy choice for New Hampshire consumers," Liberty says in its press release.
But the decision does not mean a decrease in gas dependence in New Hampshire -- in fact, it will grow Liberty's gas footprint, even as the company pursues separate clean energy projects involving battery storage, energy efficiency and "renewable" natural gas energy from a North Country landfill.
New Hampshire and New England get more electricity from gas than any other single source, and gas use for heating in the winter has strained the region's energy grid and pipeline capacity in past years.
"In the long term, we badger Liberty to think up better ways to serve their heating customers than just furnishing them with gas," Kreis, the consumer advocate, wrote in his InDepthNH column.
DEBATE CONTINUES IN GOVERNOR'S RACE AS ADVOCATES CELEBRATE
The pipeline had become a wedge issue in the Democratic primary race for governor. State Sen. Dan Feltes supported it, and executive councilor Andru Volinsky opposed it.
Feltes called a conference with reporters just after Liberty announced its change in plans, calling use of the Concord Lateral a "common sense solution ... without new fossil fuel infrastructure."
"It's going to make sure that no one's left out in the cold," Feltes says. "It's going to make sure that we can now chart a clean energy future where folks can actually transition off natural gas to clean energy home-heating options."
Feltes sought to take some credit for Liberty's decision in his conversation with reporters. Liberty says Feltes did encourage them to consider the Concord Lateral option, but the idea originated with the Public Utilities Commission.
Feltes also sharply criticized Volinsky for, in the past, saying the state does not need more winter heating fuel capacity. Feltes called that "as dangerous as denying climate change."
Volinksy called that "preposterous" in an interview with NHPR. He characterizes Liberty's decision as good news only for the utility itself. Volinksky sees it as a recommitment to the gas extraction that drives climate change.
"They are, in alliance with Kinder Morgan, committing New Hampshire to 20 years of fracked fossil fuel gas -- natural gas," Volinsky says. "That gas takes us in the opposite direction of where we need to go to build a clean energy economy and to address, head on, the problems of climate change."
As governor, Volinsky says he'd work to get heating oil users directly onto heat pumps or solar power to lower their emissions, rather than relying on gas in the near term.
The end of the pipeline plan is still welcome news to some environmental advocates along the project's route, with groups like 350 New Hampshire and ECHO Action.
"Every single thing the grassroots organizers and volunteers in our communities did made a difference, and we would not be celebrating this victory if it weren't for them," said 350NH's Jennifer Dube, who would have lived near the pipeline in Raymond, in a statement.
Granite Bridge involved a large liquefied natural gas storage tank in Epping, which raised safety concerns among neighbors that Liberty sought to quell earlier in the proposal process.
"For over three years our group Citizens for Local Control spent their own personal time and money to save our community and beat a billion-dollar corporation. I can't express how happy I am," said Joe Peery of Epping in a statement provided by 350NH.
Liberty expects to move forward with the Concord Lateral plan under the same PUC docket as it used for Granite Bridge. More hearings and negotiations on the new version of the project will take place in the coming weeks.
This story was updated Friday afternoon with more details and statements, including from the Democratic candidates for governor and 350NH.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the estimated cost of the new version of the project. It is about $90 million, not $140 million.