Energy project worries: Transparency, safety are real issues in Liberty's gas line proposal
Liberty Utilities is seeking the state’s OK to run a gas line under the Ashuelot River at Winchester Street in Keene. The company, which bought N.H. Gas in 2015, has made clear its intention of changing over the latter’s propane distribution system in the city to natural gas. It already has a line under the river, at West Street, and says this second line would make the system more reliable. The company is also hoping the City Council will approve the line running under a portion of city-owned Hickey-Desilets Park, at Winchester and Island streets.
Some area residents oppose natural gas because of its effects on climate change, and therefore oppose every project that forwards the continued use of the product, on principle. Their fears are understandable. But New England is reliant on natural gas for more than half its power production. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of local gas customers, and the rest of us, to have a safe and reliable delivery system. City officials cannot, and should not, rule on applications before them based on theories regarding the distant plans of companies to someday try to link energy projects. They must judge based on what’s before them.
That’s not an argument for approving the project. But arguments that gas projects ought to be denied because they run counter to the goal of sustainable energy or might make it easier for someone to propose a larger project down the line ignore our region’s energy reality.
Eventually relying more on solar, hydro, wind or other renewable sources of power should be the goal of the community. But we can’t cut off the use of fossil fuels in the meantime, any more than we can simply hold our collective breath until sustainability is achieved.
Still, Liberty’s application does give us pause, in two ways.
First, the company’s rationale for the project — bolstering its existing and largely elderly infrastructure — is a reminder those lines run throughout the city. In recent years, there have been several incidents in which areas have had to be evacuated while leaks or other malfunctions were addressed. In each case, the company has, as would be expected, downplayed the situation and dismissed any potential danger. Indeed, no one has been harmed in any of the incidents.
But as the system isn’t getting any younger and Liberty seems intent on increasing its service in the area, a full accounting of the system — where the lines are, how old they are, what shape they’re in and what plans are in place to update them — ought to be made clearer to the public, which is living and working around those lines every day.
Also concerning is that the state Public Utilities Commission can simply approve the project without any public input at all. The N.H. Constitution is very clear on the value of, and need for, conducting the public’s business in public. That ought to include allowing citizens their say in projects that affect them. That the PUC’s rules allow the commission to routinely bypass that principle when by definition the projects it deals with are public in nature is worrisome, and those rules should be changed.
No doubt the firms and developers seeking PUC approval would prefer to seek quiet acquiescence from the state. But that’s not why public boards and commissions exist. The burden of finding out about, and petitioning for the right to comment on, significant energy projects should not fall on those who might oppose them.
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