DOE and NPT Don’t Get It: the Public Deserves an Unbiased Review of Northern Pass

Oct 12, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) reacted in the media (here and here) to news stories reporting that the federal review of the Northern Pass project has been tainted by DOE’s abdication of critical responsibilities to the project developer and permit applicant, NPT. It is frustrating, but not unexpected given what the document trail revealed, that DOE and NPT don’t see any problems with the permitting process to date.

DOE says that it exercised independent judgment in selecting the contractor team and considered other contractors for the job (while it won’t say which ones or how many, apparently absent a FOIA request, which – if CLF’s last request is an indication – could take as long as a year).

While it is clear DOE signed off on the new team, DOE is ignoring that its actions were wrong because of the undisputedly pervasive role DOE allowed NPT to play –with NPT’s counsel personally recruiting, assembling, and coaching the team, helping the team make its proposal to DOE, making a side agreement (of which DOE apparently has no copy) with the team setting the budget and schedule for the process, and actively helping to draft key DOE documents governing the environmental review.

Giving NPT this role and opportunity for influence is at odds with the core purpose of the legal requirement that any third-party contractor be chosen solely by DOE without meaningful participation by the permit applicant: the selected contractor must have no conflict of interest in favor of the applicant – even a perceived conflict of interest. Like DOE itself, the contractor must be seen by the public as an impartial, independent arbiter of the data, the facts, and the analysis contained in the environmental impact statement of the project. Here, the public can have no confidence that this will be true precisely because NPT was so instrumental in choosing the contractor team. The documents make clear that the contractor team owes its job to NPT. How can the public have any confidence that the team will fulfill its obligations indepedently, with no special treatment or preferences for NPT?

DOE’s other comment – that it is routine for applicants to be involved in selecting contractors – is merely an admission that DOE always handles permitting processes in unacceptably close coordination with developers. “We always do it this way,” is no excuse for illegal and improper conduct.

Indeed, it is telling that DOE has no comment on evidence of actual bias on the part of a senior member of the contractor team who – even before being hired – stated the position (one favored by NPT) that the Champlain-Hudson transmission project is not an alternative to be considered as part of the Northern Pass alternatives review. This evidence means that there is not only a risk of bias with the current contractor team, but that bias already has crept into the process – and on a critically important aspect of the environmental review.

By just adding CLF’s filing (PDF) to the pile of public comments received on the project to date, DOE appears to be following a strategy of bureaucratic defensiveness and imperviousness to public feedback – a strategy that is reflected in one of the most troubling documents CLF obtained, an internal email revealing that one of DOE’s principal priorities is to avoid “setting the precedent of backing down under the weight of public criticism.” If DOE continues on this path, as we say in our filing, “it would be fair for the public to conclude that DOE is not interested in meaningful public involvement and is incapable of reaching a legitimate final decision on the permitting applications that the President and Congress have entrusted it with faithfully reviewing on the nation’s behalf.”

For its part, NPT’s response reflects the absurd allegation that CLF merely is trying to cause delay. To the contrary, our filing with DOE implores the agency to fix the process now, before the permitting process begins again in earnest. Given that there are still several months before NPT says it will restart the process by filing a new northernmost route for the project, DOE has ample opportunity to cure deficiencies.    To be clear, every day of delay that has occurred to date is NPT’s doing – DOE has allowed NPT to drag out the federal environmental review for two years so that it can assemble a new northernmost route, without a definitive end in sight.

NPT also says CLF is trying to “preemptively discredit” the process. Of course, it isn’t CLF’s filing but instead DOE’s and NPT’s own actions, documented in black and white in the 22 exhibits to our filing, that are preemptively discrediting the process.

You can help CLF tell DOE – in only a few clicks – that its actions are unacceptable and that New Hampshire deserves a truly fair review of Northern Pass. Please take action now.

To learn more about this issue, take a moment to review our posts from earlier this week here and here.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Its Objectivity and Integrity Again in Question, the Federal Review of Northern Pass Comes to a New Crossroads

Oct 11, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

(photo credit: flickr/timtom.ch)

The new revelations of unfairness and bias in the federal environmental review of Northern Pass have struck a chord, garnering front-page coverage in the Union Leader and a story on New Hampshire Public Radio. You can join our fight for a fair review of Northern Pass. We have made it easy for you to take action and tell the United States Department of Energy (DOE) that New Hampshire deserves an unbiased process that follows the law – it will only take a couple of seconds. You can submit your comment to DOE here.

To understand what’s at stake in the wake of these developments, it’s important to take a look back at the history of where we’ve been and what we’ve been fighting for.

This week marks the second anniversary of the formal announcement of the Northern Pass project and Northern Pass Transmission LLC’s (NPT) application to DOE for a Presidential Permit. Shortly after the announcement, it became clear that DOE’s review of the project was off to a terrible start. DOE had selected a “third-party” contractor to prepare an environmental impact statement or “EIS” for the project – a crucial, comprehensive, and impartial study of the project’s environmental and socioeconomic impacts and its reasonable alternatives. But that contractor, Normandeau Associates, was the same firm that was on NPT’s payroll to advocate for the project’s approval during the state siting process, which will follow the federal process. This was a clear conflict of interest in violation of the regulations that govern federal environmental reviews.

After CLF and others objected to DOE’s hiring of Normandeau on the ground that the contractor had, NPT initially defended Normandeau’s dual role. Then, in an about-face, NPT terminated the arrangement, saying that:

[T]he strong expressions of concern by certain members of the public about the arrangement lead us to believe that continuing with this arrangement may cause the public to lack confidence in the objectivity and rigor of the ultimate environmental analysis of the project. That outcome obviously does not serve the interests of the project, any of the permitting agencies or the public.

It turns out, however, that our fight for fairness and integrity in the Northern Pass permitting process was only beginning. Over the last two years, CLF has advocated for a truly rigorous analysis of alternative technologies and strategies, a comprehensive review of the region’s energy needs, and a much more honest accounting of the current proposal’s impacts – on electric bills, the climate, our domestic renewable power industry, and natural resources in Canada – than the threadbare and misleading information NPT has provided to DOE and to the public. Along the way, CLF has encouraged members of the public to make themselves heard in the permitting process and sought improvements in that process.

After DOE announced it had selected a new, supposedly independent contractor team to prepare the EIS, CLF identified the potential for unfairness in DOE’s agreement with the contractor and encouraged DOE to fix the problems. We’ve been joined in this important fight by many, many other advocates, from the record crowds at DOE’s public meetings in March 2011, to passionate Granite-Staters on and off the project’s path, to our allies at other environmental organizations.

What we’ve now learned – that DOE has repeatedly abdicated its responsibility to control the process and that NPT has had improper influence over major decisions about the review – has deeply shaken our confidence in the process we’ve been fighting so hard to protect and improve. With NPT expected to announce a new northernmost route soon (now the end of 2012) and restart DOE’s review once again, we are at a new crossroads, just as we were at the process’s outset. Will the federal review of Northern Pass be the fair, objective, and open process that New Hampshire deserves? Or is the game rigged in the developer’s favor yet again?

Again, please join our fight. Take action now.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Newly Disclosed Evidence of NPT Influence Taints Federal Review of Northern Pass

Oct 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

DOE Headquarters, Washington, DC (Energy Department photo, credit Quentin Kruger)

A year ago, CLF asked the Department of Energy (DOE) for documents regarding its environmental review of Northern Pass – the major power-line project proposed by Northern Pass Transmission LLC, or “NPT.” We fought for an open, rigorous, and impartial permitting process that would independently scrutinize all elements of the Northern Pass proposal. We wanted to be sure that’s what New Hampshire and the region would be getting from DOE and its new contractor team, which is charged with preparing the ever-crucial environmental impact statement or “EIS” – the document that analyzes the proposed project, all reasonable alternatives, and all related environmental and socio-economic impacts.

On the surface, we saw some blemishes, but it appeared that, despite the potential problems (which we noted in a submission to DOE last October), DOE’s new contractor team would be substantially more objective than the original contractor, which had an obvious conflict of interest due to its dual role (incredibly) working for both DOE to prepare the EIS and for NPT in seeking to obtain state-level approval for the project.

It took nearly a year, but DOE finally sent us a large set of documents – emails, letters, and document drafts. The documents provide the first real window we’ve had into DOE’s handling of the process so far.

What they show is profoundly troubling: abdication by DOE of important non-delegable responsibilities to the permit applicant, NPT; and significant and improper influence over the permitting process by the permit applicant, NPT:

  • NPT’s counsel – who was once DOE’s top lawyer and still appears to have extraordinary access and influence at DOE – handpicked the new EIS contractor team, with what appears to be minimal DOE involvement. Counsel for NPT acted as the new contractor team’s agent, recruiting the team, pulling together its submission of qualifications and a work plan proposal to DOE, and organizing a face-to-face meeting between DOE, NPT, and the team. It appears DOE conducted no real search of its own, in violation of governing regulations requiring that EIS contractors be chosen “solely” by DOE.
  • A senior member of the new contractor team has already demonstrated that she is biased in favor of a narrow, NPT-preferred alternatives analysis. In an email included in the documents obtained by CLF, one of the new contractors opined that the underground Champlain Hudson Power Express project connecting Canada and New York City will not be considered an alternative to Northern Pass in the EIS. This is precisely the position expressed just one month earlier by NPT in its objection to CLF’s and others’ request for a regional energy study, which was based in part on DOE’s need to evaluate Northern Pass and Champlain Hudson together. The email was, ironically, intended to show that email’s author lacks a conflict of interest in working as an EIS consultant on the Northern Pass project and as a DOE consultant on the Champlain Hudson project.
  • DOE allowed NPT to design the arrangement among DOE, NPT, and the contractor team, which was memorialized in a Memorandum of Understanding that, we’ve learned, DOE asked NPT to draft. It appears that DOE doesn’t even have a copy of the key agreement between NPT and the contractor team establishing the budget and schedule for the EIS.

Unfortunately, this pattern of NPT’s influence over the process is not unique to selecting and managing the project’s EIS contractors:

  • DOE apparently reviewed and okayed NPT’s deeply incomplete permit application before it was even filed.
  • DOE asked NPT’s counsel to write up the “purpose and need for agency action,” a crucial DOE determination that will help shape the scope of the EIS, including what alternatives to the current Northern Pass proposal should be studied. NPT’s draft was virtually identical to the version that then appeared in last year’s Federal Register notice announcing that DOE would prepare an EIS and kicking off the scoping process. In our scoping comments, CLF identified DOE’s “purpose and need” statement as illegally narrow.
  • NPT and DOE have had private discussions, outside the public eye, about pending requests by stakeholders to improve DOE’s process. In the case of CLF’s and others’ request for a regional study of our energy needs, a request that became all the more important in the aftermath of the announcement of the Northeast Energy Link project last July, NPT’s counsel went so far as to give DOE talking points and supporting legal citations explaining why granting the request was “not warranted.” DOE’s decision on the request? As NPT would prefer, DOE hasn’t commissioned any regional study or EIS.

What should happen next? Yesterday, CLF filed extensive comments with DOE (1 mb PDF linked here, 10 MB .zip archive of exhibits here), laying out the evidence and requesting major changes in DOE’s environmental review of Northern Pass:

  • First, DOE’s new contractor team has a clear conflict of interest, in violation of governing regulations that prohibit the use of contractors with “any conflict of interest.” The team apparently owes its new contractor job – and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultant fees – to NPT. To ensure the objectivity and integrity of the permitting process, the new contractor team needs to be replaced by a new contractor or qualified DOE team with no conflicts of interest, and without NPT’s involvement.
  • Second, and more fundamentally, DOE needs to change course – now. New Hampshire deserves a fair, impartial, and rigorous review of Northern Pass. NPT, as the permit applicant, predictably would prefer an easy path to approval. It’s DOE’s legal obligation to control the process, promote meaningful public involvement, and safeguard its decision-making from bias and undue influence. In light of NPT’s failure to piece together a northernmost route, DOE has ample time to start again, with a more open and objective approach that would help to rebuild the public’s confidence in this important permitting process.

UPDATE: Help us tell DOE to fix the process by replacing the contractor team and instituting the fair, legally sound process that New Hampshire deserves. It only takes a few clicks. Take action now here.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Cleaner Cars, Cleaner Air

Oct 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo courtesy of dklimke@flickr.com

Cleaner cars are on the way. In an important step for climate change and air pollution, Vermont is updating its vehicle air emission rules so we can all have cleaner cars and breathe easier.

The rule follows California’s standards and reduces the allowed emissions and greenhouse gases from cars beginning with the 2015 car models.

The greenhouse gas reductions contained in the proposed amendments are expected to reduce new passenger vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by about 32-36% by model year 2025.

Cars that are 1/3 cleaner. That’s a huge step in the right direction. Transportation is responsible for nearly half of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. These emission controls are vital to achieve Vermont’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

CLF and Vermont have a long history of support for cleaner transportation. In a lawsuit where CLF provided key support, Vermont defeated a challenge from the automobile industry to previous emission rules. The decision was followed in other states and continues to pave the way for reduced emissions.

Conservation Law Foundation joined with other organizations and submitted these comments in support of Vermont’s rule.

CLF is working in other New England states to advance adoption of these important rules.

Winds of Change: The Promise of 3 Offshore Wind Farms in New England

Sep 21, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Photo courtesy of phault @ flickr

This is an exciting time for clean energy in New England. Why? Because our region could have not one but three offshore wind farms constructed by 2016.  Not only that, these would be the first three in the nation!

The Cape Wind Project, off the coast of Cape Cod, will site 130 wind turbines between 4–11 miles offshore and produce an average of 170 MW of electricity, or about 75% of the average electricity demand for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island. Block Island Wind Farm is scheduled to be constructed in Rhode Island state waters next spring. It is a 5 turbine, 30 megawatt demonstration-scale wind farm about three miles off of Block Island which will generate over 100,000 megawatt hours annually, supplying most of Block Island’s electricity with excess power exported to the mainland. And on a very exciting note, here in Maine, international energy company Statoil’s proposal to build a four turbine floating wind park is moving forward. For recent news coverage, read here.

Clean energy is sprouting up all around New England. For some projects, it’s about time. Recent FAA approvals on Cape Wind, for instance, come after more than a decade of exhaustive reviews and strong opposition from dirty energy-funded opponents. Each of these projects has enormous potential. Together, if built, these three offshore wind farms would transform New England’s energy mix.

Here in Maine, Statoil’s unsolicited bid to develop the floating wind farm is moving through the federal review process. The Bureau of Ocean energy Management (BOEM) has published a notice to determine if there are other developers interested in competing to use the area and to solicit comments about the proposal. The notice is published here.

CLF will provide comments that balance our commitment to helping New England develop clean renewable energy with protecting the ocean environment. BOEM published a second notice that it will prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) when Statoil submits its construction and operations plan (COP). The EIS will consider the environmental consequences associated with the Hywind Maine project. BOEM will accept public comments about the environmental issues that should be considered in the EIS until November 8. For more, read here.

In addition, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is reviewing the proposed terms of a long-term contract that would permit Statoil to sell the energy generated from the wind farm  into Maine’s energy grid over the next 20 years. The PUC’s authority to approve this contract flows from Maine’s 2010 Ocean Energy Act, which supports research and development of offshore wind energy technology. The PUC may decide whether to accept the proposed contract terms within the month.

For a current and accurate summary of the state of offshore wind off the Atlantic Coast, please read the National Wildlife Federation’s report released on September 24, “The Turning Point for Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy.” CLF helped write sections of the report and co-sponsored it.

There’s no question we’re making incredible progress – but there is more to be done. If you support this work, sign up to become a CLF e-activist to keep informed about our work. And check back in regularly for updates as we try to get these projects built!

Two Years Later and No Path Forward for Northern Pass

Sep 5, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Hands Across New Hampshire protest, Deerfield, NH, September 1, 2012 (photo credit, Wes Golomb, Bear Brook Photography)

After a summer when many in New Hampshire expected to hear about a revised route and a renewed public relations campaign for the Northern Pass transmission project, the current proposal, which surfaced almost two years ago, is facing new obstacles:

It is long past time for Northern Pass to acknowledge (contrary to Northeast Utilities’ recent sunny pronouncements to investors) that the current proposal – new route north of Groveton or not – is a non-starter in New Hampshire. Instead, we should be shelving this fatally flawed proposal, critically exploring whether and to what extent hydropower imports are needed, evaluating all the alternatives in an open and well-informed planning process, and continuing to pursue greater regional consensus and coordination to build a real clean energy economy with broadly shared benefits, on both sides of the border.

For more information about Northern Pass, sign-up for our monthly newsletter Northern Pass Wire, visit CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Generating Clean Energy and Efficiency Across Massachusetts

Aug 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

How does a community balance the potential costs of siting clean energy projects with the economic benefits they provide? What are the local economic realities of hosting distributed clean energy generation facilities and energy efficiency projects in a community? CLF Ventures explored these questions and others in a recent webinar we co-sponsored with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) and the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s (MMA) Massachusetts Municipal Energy Group.

The first in a three-part series CLF Ventures is co-hosting this summer and fall, the August 15 webinar featured a presentation by James McGrath, Park and Open Space Program Manager for Pittsfield, a Massachusetts Green Community that has hosted several large-scale solar projects and implemented robust, community-wide energy efficiency programs. He spoke about how to initiate clean energy projects, the advantages of clean energy at the local level, and strategies to manage the most common roadblocks in implementation.

The webinar series is targeted to municipal officials and volunteers who are already engaged in clean energy and energy efficiency issues or interested in learning more about how to site and finance clean energy facilities and programs in their communities. Building on themes explored in CLF Ventures’ earlier work with MassCEC on siting land-based wind energy projects, the webinar series gives participants an opportunity to learn first-hand from municipal leaders and technical experts as they share their experiences implementing clean energy and energy efficiency projects across Massachusetts.

Upcoming webinars on September 12 and October 24 will explore how to engage the public when siting solar and wind energy projects and the ins and outs of financing clean energy through power purchase agreements. For more information or to register for upcoming webinars, email liz.carver@clf.org.

Hats Off: Request to Step-Up Oversight for Vermont Yankee

Aug 20, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Hats off to Vermont regulators for requesting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to put an end to the string of mishaps at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

photo courtesy of shersteve@flickr.com

Vermont Yankee is an aging nuclear plant on the banks of the Connecticut River. It is increasingly showing its age and the time for stepped up oversight is long overdue. The request cites incidents that “continue to pile up”, including:

 “a misaligned valve in the pool where the plant stores highly radioactive spent fuel waste allowed 2,700 gallons of water to drain out of the pool. Another involved epoxy applied to a condenser to keep it from leaking; that interfered with the condenser’s operation and forced the plant to reduce its power output.”

It is time for the NRC to step in and show its willingness to exert more than lackluster oversight of the nation’s nuclear fleet.

With The New York Times reporting from Japan that “the nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture,” it is important that similar problems not occur here in the US.

The NRC is responsible for matters concerning radiological health and safety at nuclear power plants. It is important that they provide real oversight and not have a cozy relationship with industry that lets problems “pile up” or human error and poor management continue.

Thank you Vermont regulators for keeping the pressure on the NRC.

PSNH Ratepayers Get Cleaner, Cheaper Power Choices

Aug 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

If you have a greener, cheaper choice, make it! (photo credit: ilovebutter/flickr)

Most customers of Public Service Company of New Hampshire get one of the worst electricity deals in New England. Their ratepayer dollars subsidize the operation of PSNH’s outdated, inefficient coal-fired power plants; they live with the public health impacts of air pollution from PSNH plants; they have seen (and will see) their rates rise thanks to PSNH’s abysmal planning; and they won’t see much if any benefit from the billion-dollar transmission project – Northern Pass – that PSNH is spending so much time promoting. Meanwhile, electricity for other New Englanders is getting cleaner and cheaper.

The good news for PSNH customers: they now have choices.

One of the more promising reforms associated with the restructuring of the region’s electric market in the late 1990s – “retail choice” – has been painfully slow to materialize for New Hampshire residents and small businesses. Most have been stuck with PSNH’s default energy service. (With their superior purchasing power, NH’s big businesses have been able to escape PSNH’s above-market rates for some time – either by buying power from the wholesale market themselves or through power buying groups organized by the likes of the Business and Industry Association.)

In the last few months, several companies – including Resident Power and Electricity NH – have started offering electric service to New Hampshire residents, and more companies are planning to do the same. Just last week, the Portsmouth Herald reported that USource (an affiliate of New Hampshire utility Unitil) is now working with chambers of commerce around the state to serve groups of small businesses. (UPDATE (8/14): Per today’s Union Leader, add Glacial Energy to the list.)

These companies’ rates beat PSNH’s energy service rate, and the savings are likely to increase as PSNH’s rate rises. And because these non-PSNH suppliers buy from cleaner, cheaper power sources, customers who switch do not pay to support PSNH’s dirty, uneconomic power plants. If you’re planning to switch, you should carefully read and understand the terms of your new contract. PSNH will continue to deliver your power and handle all billing.

It’s a win-win, a bit like finding that local, organic produce is priced less than conventionally-grown produce. (If you frequent one of New England’s many vibrant farmer’s markets or stop at a roadside stand this time of year, you often find yourself making exactly this discovery!)

But the competition is not good news for PSNH’s coal-fired business model  – or for the many customers who aren’t aware of their choices or are nervous about making the switch, whose rates will rise even faster as PSNH’s customer base shrinks. PSNH recently released its latest report on how many customers are making the switch – known as customer “migration” – and the numbers keep getting worse for PSNH. In June:

  • More than 86% of large commercial and industrial customers did not buy power from PSNH (accounting for 95% of the power delivered to such customers). Even though there was little room for them to grow, these numbers have climbed since last fall. 68% of medium-sized businesses also are choosing other suppliers.
  • With choices for New Hampshire residents and small businesses growing, PSNH’s numbers show that the percentage of residential customers who have left PSNH doubled (from a very small base) between April and June. This number is poised to increase dramatically. According to Electricity NH, which launched in June, it has already signed up 10,000 New Hampshire customers. We understand that Resident Power also is signing up customers at a fast clip.
  • Overall, 42% of power delivered to PSNH customers came from a supplier other than PSNH. This figure was 34% as of last July and has risen by almost a quarter in 12 months. Stated differently, since last July, PSNH has lost about 12% of its energy supply business.

These developments are only the latest signs that the writing is on the wall for PSNH’s coal-fired power plants and the disastrous public policy that keeps them in business. While CLF works to make sure New Hampshire policymakers get the message, PSNH ratepayers are getting the opportunity to send their own message to PSNH: no, thanks, we deserve better.