Business, Energy, State Government

Hope Gas pipeline project receives more support; Hope objects to FOIA request for project information from The Dominion Post

MORGANTOWN – Hope Gas’ Morgantown pipeline project received another letter of support this past week. And anticipating Public Service Commission approval of the project, the company took some steps to expedite resolution of the case.

But also on Friday, it filed its objection to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Dominion Post regarding protected information about project maps and certain costs and revenues.

On Wednesday, local natural gas producer Northeast Natural Energy – with offices in Charleston and Morgantown – joined the chorus of support for the project.

NNE notes Hope’s assertion that the Morgantown Connector Project has the “potential to connect Hope’s system to additional West Virginia production. . . providing additional West Virginia gas supply to Hope and providing those producers access to Columbia [Gas Co.] and markets off of Columbia.”

Building on that, NNE said the project “will promote the production and development of West Virginia gas, fostering job growth within the state and increasing severance taxes for the state.” And the project allows Hope to use the state’s “abundant and responsibly sourced gas to supply its customers.”

The pipeline is planned to run a total 30 miles from Wadestown in western Monongalia County eastward to the edge of Morgantown and then northwest to site near Osage, at an estimated cost of $177,437,169.

On Dec. 4, two PSC staff members testified to the PSC in support of the project, and on Dec. 5, Charleston-based Mountaineer Gas offered its support.

In response to the PSC staff support, Hope declined to provide any rebuttal testimony, as it’s not needed to defend its proposal. Hope also filed a motion to cancel the scheduled Dec. 19 evidentiary hearing, given that there are no factual issues in dispute.

The motion awaits PSC approval.

FOIA request

Hope filed its application to build the pipeline on Sept. 22, with cost and revenue information redacted and maps and drawings not included in the public version. Then in an Oct. 12 filing, Hope sought a protective order to keep the information confidential and gave this explanation as to why.

First, certain highly detailed maps and drawings “provide precise locations of facilities that should not be disclosed for security reasons,” Hope said. Second, project costs that should remain confidential because certain project work remains subject to a bidding procurement process. And third, discussion of estimated revenue from certain services Hope might provide is subject to commercial negotiation with customers.

On Oct. 26, PSC staff objected to Hope’s request for the protective order. It said the aggregate cost estimate of the project is a not a trade secret. And while Hope is not immediately seeking to recoup the costs of the pipeline, staff said, it plans to in later filings, and customers deserve to know the cost and how it might affect their future bills.

Staff also said that revealing aggregate costs won’t harm negotiations. Hope can still maintain confidentiality on specific line items where it’s seeking competitive pricing.

On the matter of the maps, staff said they are not specific engineering plans and descriptions subject to protection under the Freedom of Information Act. “The public has a substantial interest in viewing these maps in order to gauge what impact this project will have on private property and how it could affect their property values and property usages,” staff said. “The public also has a right to see how the path of this project will impact any public lands if there is such an impact at all.”

In a Nov. 13 order, the PSC denied Hope’s request for protective treatment for total estimated project costs. But it allowed Hope to keep confidential other information, such as projected revenue from expanded service allowed by the new pipeline, the cost of Columbia Gas building a new interconnection at Wadestown, and the maps and drawings.

Regarding the remaining protected material, the order said, “Motion for protective order, including Hope’s Application Exhibit G listing itemized Project Costs and Revenue Estimates and Exhibit E Maps and Drawings, and related testimony is deferred until the filing and review of a request pursuant to the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The Executive Secretary shall maintain the unredacted version of the sealed filings in its current condition, separate and apart from the rest of the file pending further order.”

In response to that order, on Nov. 27, The Dominion Post filed a FOIA request with the PSC, quoting the order and requesting the remaining protected information. In a subsequent email to the PSC – which has not yet appeared on the case page – we noted that The Dominion Post serves the affected area and its readers have a direct interest in the project.

Then, in a Nov. 30 order, the PSC gave Hope Gas, PSC staff, and the Consumer Advocate Division until Friday to respond to the request.

Hope’s attorney filed its objection on Friday. The response said, “Hope appreciates the commission’s order and opportunity to further respond as to why the subject confidential information should not be disclosed; however, Hope’s argument, law, and reasons for not disclosing the confidential information, including the material negative impact on ratepayers such disclosure would result in, have been fully provided in [prior filings]. To conserve the commission’s resources, Hope will not here further regurgitate what is already in” those filings.

Responses from PSC staff and the CAD had not posted on the case page by deadline.