Gas pipeline proposal would tunnel under Merrimack and Souhegan rivers

Energy giant Kinder-Morgan wants to bore a tunnel completely underneath the Merrimack River near the Anheuser-Busch plant, and also under the Souhegan River near Souhegan High School, as part of its proposal to build a huge natural gas pipeline through New Hampshire.

The tunnels to carry the pipelines underneath the rivers are included in initial maps prepared by the company, as it prepares for a filing Monday that will officially designate the New Hampshire path as its preferred route for the pipeline, which it calls Northeast Energy Direct.

Most of the pipeline’s 76-mile path in New Hampshire would run under or alongside existing PSNH power lines, but in a few places it deviates from the PSNH right-of-way.

A major deviation occurs around Souhegan High School and Amherst Middle School, where the power line cuts through school property. The proposed pipeline route, which may still change, maneuvers north around the schools.

The company’s proposal includes a 10-inch-diameter, buried pipeline, called a lateral, in Mason. It would connect with the interstate pipeline near Starch Mill Road and run south through Mason into Massachusetts, where it would connect with another pipeline. This route does not follow a power line.

Kinder-Morgan will be holding public hearings in January and February to gather reaction to the plan, which would bring the buried pipeline into New Hampshire from Massachusetts near the Vermont border, then cut east-west across southern New Hampshire to connect with an existing pipeline network, called the Concord Lateral, in Londonderry.

“The route is not settled,” said Alan Fore, vice president of public affairs for Kinder-Morgan, during an interview Thursday. “People can present other options, present other thoughts. … We will file (with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) next fall, and we want to address the issues up front, so when the permitting process goes ahead, issues will be addressed.”

The route shown on maps includes a 400-foot-wide path, although the pipeline will only require a 50-foot-wide right-of-way, with a 100-foot-wide area needed during construction.

Kinder-Morgan has already gone through a series of town meetings – 42 of them, Fore said, many of them contentious – concerning their initial proposal to get more gas from New York state into eastern Massachusetts. That route traveled across northern Massachusetts, only connecting to New Hampshire via a lateral pipeline through Hollis.

“In retrospect, going through all of that – it wasn’t pleasant all the time – was worth it. … We have made such a significant change to the project because of what we have heard and learned,” Fore said.

The new route through New Hampshire will also make natural gas more available for areas of south central and southwest New Hampshire that do not have it, said Curtis Cole, director of business development for Kinder-Morgan.

Currently New Hampshire natural gas pipelines run no further west than Milford, where a Liberty Utilities pipeline ends. Keene has a small stand-alone gas network served by trucks, which Liberty Utilities is buying.

“There are parts of Massachusetts where businesses want the pipeline. They’re saying, look what’s happened – now it’s up in New Hampshire,” Cole said.

New England’s increasing dependence on natural gas to produce electricity – about half the region’s power plants now run on gas rather than coal, hydropower or nuclear energy – has led to shortages during the winter, when much of the supply is diverted for heating buildings. This has caused electricity prices to spike. Prices from several utilities are slated to rise by one-third to one-half this winter because it will be so expensive to buy natural gas to create the electricity.

Opponents of the pipeline plan argue that the several billion dollar cost could instead be spent to create a next-generation power system, with energy storage, load shifting, alternative energy sources, microgrids and other technologies that would have less environmental effect and be cheaper in the long run.

The New England Energy Direct gas pipeline, either 30 or 36 inches in diameter, would carry more than a billion cubic feet of gas a day, pressurized to 1,460 pounds per square inch.

It could open early as 2018, although many obstacles still must be overcome. It must get approval from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee as well as FERC.

The 76-mile New Hampshire portion of the route, plus 5 miles of the lateral connection in Mason, will cost at least $700 million. It is part of a roughly $5 billion expansion that connects back into existing Kinder-Morgan pipeline networks in New York state, and would bring oil from the Marcellus shale formation in that state and Pennsylvania.

Kinder-Morgan isn’t the only company working to get the vast supplies of Marcellus gas into New England.

The 124-mile Constitution Pipeline by a consortium of companies, which would connect pipelines in Pennsylvania and New York State, just got FERC approval and may be operating by next year. And Kinder-Morgan rival Spectra Energy Corp. is seeking federal approval to expand its existing Algonquin pipeline through Connecticut to eastern Massachusetts, also aimed at importing more Marcellus gas into New England.

Digging tunnels completely underneath rivers is an accepted practice for pipeline construction, using horizontal drilling technology that has improved greatly in recent years.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).