By the slimmest of margins, the Keene City Council has cleared the way for natural gas to be a part of the community’s energy infrastructure.
In a 5-4 vote Thursday night, councilors approved discontinuing a section of Production Avenue to allow Liberty Utilities to install a temporary natural gas facility.
It’s the final approval the project needs to go forward, and it was made against a backdrop of opposition.
Roughly 60 people attended Thursday’s meeting — about two-thirds of them to oppose the Production Avenue vote and support a resolution asking the City Council to support the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The group of activists had gathered before the meeting in front of City Hall and in Central Square to get its message out to passing motorists and pedestrians.
Activists carried signs with phrases such as “ACT NOW OR SWIM LATER,” “NO NEW PIPELINES” and “Live Fossil Free or Die.”
Inside, they sat quietly, as City Council rules allow for public comments only during subcommittee meetings or public hearings, and not during regular sessions of the full Council.
Two of those in attendance, Stephanie Scherr and Susan L. Durling, have previously noted the contradictory juxtaposition that would result if the City Council approved the Liberty Utilities project, and then supported the resolution pertaining to the Paris Agreement.
The Council didn’t vote to support that resolution Thursday, agreeing instead to send it to the planning, licenses and development committee so people could comment on it, and so that it could get more media attention. Still, several councilors spoke in favor of it at the meeting.
As for the Liberty Utilities project, the company plans to deliver some equipment to the site in mid-July, and start construction about two weeks later, spokesman John Shore said in an email earlier this week.
Liberty Utilities officials have said their plan is to eventually have a permanent natural gas facility in Keene to replace the city’s decades-old propane-air system.
The propane-air system has been problematic in recent years, most notably in December 2015 when a malfunction at the system’s production facility caused by a power outage led to pure propane being distributed to customers. The result was a city-wide emergency that included four people being taken to the hospital, more than 1,000 homes and businesses being checked for carbon monoxide exposure, and 75 fire departments from across New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, as well as several state agencies, responding to the city.
The system experienced a similar, but smaller-scale, malfunction in February 2016.
But before Liberty Utilities builds a permanent facility in the city, it plans for the temporary facility to be installed by the end of this year. That facility will provide natural gas to businesses on Production Avenue, and across Route 9 at the Monadnock Marketplace.
The facility will be supplied by tanker trucks carrying compressed natural gas, according to the plan.
The City Council vote Thursday was made with five councilors unable to participate because they hadn’t attended a previously scheduled City Council visit to the site.
Ward 2 Councilor Carl B. Jacobs was absent.
Before the vote, Ward 3 Councilor Terry M. Clark pleaded with his fellow councilors to join him in opposing the road discontinuance, saying they would be aiding with the introduction of fracked natural gas into the local economy.
Fracked natural gas is pulled from the earth using a process that involves shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals at high pressures into rock.
But concerns have been raised about the process on health, safety and environmental grounds.
Supporting the Liberty Utilities project goes against the city’s master plan, its values and its reputation for being progressive and ahead of the game on environmental and climate issues, Clark said.
“We’re supposed to be one of the most sustainable communities in the state. I think this is wrong for us to do,” he said.
Clark added that he found it “suspect” that for years N.H. Gas Corp. operated the system with no significant problems, including during power outages, but less than a year after Liberty bought it in 2015, there was a major gas incident caused by a power outage.
He also said councilors were missing the larger picture, echoing what some opponents of the project have said.
The big picture, they contend, is an effort by Liberty Utilities to create a demand to restart the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project. Liberty Utilities is New Hampshire’s largest natural gas utility.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan, proposed the pipeline in November 2014 to carry fracked natural gas from the shale fields of northern Pennsylvania to a hub in Dracut, Mass. The firm withdrew its application for federal approval for the project in May 2016, saying that not enough customers had signed up to buy natural gas from the pipeline.
Shore denied the claim that natural gas projects in Keene and other communities in the state are “in any way an attempt by Liberty to create artificial need in order to revive the NED project.”
When asked if the natural gas that would feed Keene’s system would be fracked natural gas, Shore replied that the gas delivered to Keene most likely would be produced using a mixture of methods.
“Regarding the source of the natural gas we will be delivering to Keene, it will be provided by a third-party vendor who will get the gas from pipelines,” he said in an email. “Pipeline gas comes from several different sources and is produced using a variety of methods.”
Vote on climate resolution on hold
After voting on the Liberty Utilities project, the City Council moved on to discuss whether to suspend its rules of order to vet the resolution on the Paris Agreement. The proposal, submitted by seven councilors, asks to have Keene join other U.S. cities in the Climate Mayors network “in adopting and supporting the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
The agreement, reached in 2015, commits almost every country in the world to act to limit the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The expectation would be to eventually make that limit 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In addition, the United States pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 to be below 2005 levels by 26 to 28 percent, as part of the accord.
On June 1, President Donald J. Trump announced he would withdraw the United States from the agreement.
According to media reports, Trump said the agreement places unfair environmental standards and subsequent financial burdens on the U.S. and its citizens.
Since then, several communities, businesses and organizations in the United States have said they’ll continue to support the agreement.
However, knowing that many of their constituents wanted to comment on the matter, Keene councilors came to a consensus that they’d have the resolution go before a subcommittee first.
That subcommittee, the planning, licenses and development committee, meets at City Hall on Wednesday at 7 p.m.