Ashuelot River

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

The Ashuelot River, shown here in June 2018, flows under the Island Street bridge in Keene, near where Liberty Utilities received approval from the Public

Utilities Commission in January to run a pipeline. A planning engineer previously said the new pipeline

under the river would form part of the existing propane/air system and later be used for natural gas.

Liberty Utilities can start converting its Keene propane/air system to natural gas, a state regulatory body has ruled.

The company has said it wants to change its 1,200 or so Keene customers over to compressed natural gas to increase reliability. The request, which drew opposition from a Keene city councilor on health and environmental grounds, has been pending before the N.H. Public Utilities Commission for more than two years.

In a July 26 order, the commission said Liberty can move forward with the first phase of its planned conversion — commercial customers at Monadnock Marketplace on Ash Brook Road.

Liberty will be required to submit additional documentation before continuing with later phases of the conversion.

“We are happy that the PUC has given us the green light to go forward with our conversions to natural gas in Keene,” John Shore, a Liberty spokesman, said in an email. “We plan to start work at the end of September and will continue into early October.”

The piping is already in place, Shore added, “so the work that remains is converting the equipment currently running on a mixture of propane and air, so that it will run on natural gas.”

Liberty took over the Keene franchise in January 2015 with the purchase of N.H. Gas Corp. It’s the company’s only propane/air system, according to its website. By contrast, Liberty serves natural gas to more than 100 communities in six states.

Company representatives have described the propane/air system as antiquated and promoted natural gas as a cheaper, more reliable alternative.

In December 2015, an issue at Liberty’s propane/air production facility allowed pure propane into the system, triggering a city-wide emergency response in which four people were taken to the hospital and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were checked for carbon monoxide exposure. A similar, much smaller incident occurred in Keene in February 2016.

In spring 2017, Liberty obtained city approvals to set up a temporary natural-gas decompression facility on Production Avenue, over opposition from some local activists who protested the building of new fossil-fuel infrastructure as the world grapples with climate change.

Around the same time, the company filed a petition asking the Public Utilities Commission to allow it to distribute natural gas in Keene, under the same franchise right that allows it to distribute propane.

The commission ruled in Liberty’s favor that October, but later reopened the proceedings at the request of Terry M. Clark, a Keene city councilor.

Clark — who intervened in the process as a private citizen — has expressed concerns about the health and environmental impacts of natural gas, particularly gas that has been extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

In an interview Monday, Clark said he was “disappointed” by the commission’s latest order. He said utilities should be transitioning to clean energy, not making long-term investments in fuels that contribute to climate change.

“We simply don’t have that kind of time,” Clark said. “It’s very short-sighted.”

Last year, staff with the Public Utilities Commission’s safety division identified various deficiencies in Liberty’s plans that the company needed to correct before moving forward with the first phase of the conversion. The issues cited by staff included instances of incomplete or incorrect documentation, as well as planning shortcomings. The company has since addressed those items, Randall S. Knepper, the safety division’s director, wrote in an April communication to the commission.

The company has not yet submitted detailed plans for later phases of the project, Knepper wrote.

The commission’s order last month requires Liberty to file, within 90 days, a business plan with more specifics about the economics of the conversion. It also requires the safety division to sign off on detailed final plans for each new phase of the conversion.

The commission noted that Liberty’s plans for converting the rest of the Keene system to natural gas have not been spelled out. Though the commission found that Liberty has the right to distribute natural gas, the order states that this “should not be construed to constitute pre-approval of as yet undefined proposals for future capital projects within Liberty’s Keene service territory.”

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS.