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Don Kreis, NH Consumer Advocate: Bring Granite Bridge [pipeline] into the sunlight


New Hampshire Office of the Consumer Advocate

OCA TO PUC AND LIBERTY: BRING GRANITE BRIDGE INTO THE SUNLIGHT

On behalf of the state’s residential utility customers, the Office of the Consumer Advocate (OCA) has asked the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) not to shroud the proposed Granite Bridge project of Liberty Utilities in secrecy.

In a pleading filed on February 9, the OCA asked the PUC to reject a motion filed by Liberty to shield the key terms of the project, and related wholesale contracts, from public disclosure under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. Granite Bridge would involve the construction of a 27-mile pipeline from the Seacoast to the Manchester area along with a facility to store 2 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas.

“Liberty is proposing a very, very, very significant increase to its rate base – the value of the assets it uses to provide natural gas service in New Hampshire, and a key basis for the rates it charges customers,” said Consumer Advocate D. Maurice (“Don”) Kreis. “But because Liberty has requested confidential treatment of essential information, I can’t even disclose the amount of that proposed rate base increase.”

“That’s not the way open government is supposed to work in New Hampshire,” Kreis added.

The PUC’s rules allow a utility to accompany filings such as the petition for approval of Granite Bridge with a request for confidential treatment, which obliges both the PUC and the OCA to treat the material as secret until the Commission has had a chance to rule.

“Liberty complied with its statutory obligation to provide our office with a complete and unredacted version of its filing,” said Kreis. “But if the Commission grants Liberty’s sweeping request for confidential treatment, there is almost nothing of consequence we could discuss in public.”

Among the details Liberty wants kept secret are the projected costs of the Granite Bridge project as well as the price terms from the two wholesale contracts for which it is seeking approval. One of them, with the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System (PNGTS), would oblige customers to pay for 22 years of pipeline capacity on the PNGTS network.

Liberty has argued that disclosure of the projected cost of Granite Bridge would make it difficult for the utility to negotiate with companies that could provide alternatives to Granite Bridge in the event the project is not built. “If such future suppliers knew the annual costs of the Granite Bridge project,” Liberty said in its motion, “these future suppliers could use that information to form the minimum of what they would charge, and would then propose a price in excess of that cost.”

Kreis dismissed this argument as “completely unpersuasive.” According to the Consumer Advocate, “by the time Liberty would need to seek alternatives to Granite Bridge because of a PUC rejection or for some other reason, the information would be so stale as to be useless to competitors.”

Moreover, according to Kreis, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has required agencies like the PUC to apply a balancing test to requests for confidential treatment, weighing any privacy interest against the public’s interest in disclosure.

“In this instance, Liberty has totally failed to state a credible privacy interest,” said Kreis. “But even if you believe them about the need for privacy, in this case the public’s interest monitoring how the PUC and OCA handle this case is huge."

“We are in the midst of an intense public debate over big energy infrastructure projects, our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels, and the extent to which the regulatory process is able to get to the right answer in an effective and appropriate way,” the Consumer Advocate said. “So material that might be treated as confidential in a routine matter ought to be exposed to the full light of day here.”

The Commission has scheduled a prehearing conference in the Granite Bridge docket (DG 17-198) for March 9, at which the PUC will consider intervention requests as well as the confidentiality request. The OCA has not yet taken a position for or against the Granite Bridge proposal and looks forward to being an active participant in the docket.

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