Another Blown Deadline: For Now, No “New Route” for Northern Pass

Jan 3, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

New Year's Eve in Times Square (photo credit: flickr/Mondayne)

The ball and other ceremonial objects have dropped, and 2013 has arrived. Although we mark the turn of the year with champagne, Auld Lang Syne, and a bevy of news stories and year-end blog posts, there’s not much genuinely “new” about the New Year. We hang a new calendar and start writing 2013 on legal briefs and checks (as the case may be), and life goes on.

Here in New Hampshire, the developer of the Northern Pass transmission project celebrated New Year’s Eve without any year-end changes. As revelers made their way to New Year’s Eve parties, in a classic “news dump” to minimize attention, Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) posted a cryptic “project update” to its website. The update stated:

[W]e have identified a new route in the North Country that we will submit to the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Commission [sic] in the future for consideration and review.  We are in the process of finalizing this new proposal and will soon be prepared to announce its specific details….

We also recognize that while we are communicating with local citizens, stakeholders and public officials across New Hampshire, there is still much that can be done.  We believe this communication and dialogue is critical to the ultimate success of the new route and the project overall and felt it was necessary to take some additional time to continue these efforts before we publicly announce the new routing proposal.

In other words, NPT and its parent company Northeast Utilities (NU) had nothing new to announce, and the public will continue to wait for actual details and updated regulatory filings. And it’s not the first time Northern Pass’s developer has failed to deliver on its promise of a new route.

In May, NU set an August deadline for a route announcement; in July, NU set a September deadline; and throughout the fall, NU promised to finalize a route and file an updated Presidential Permit application with the U.S. Department of Energy by the end of the 2012, even going so far as to say that it had already obtained 99% of the land it needs. In this context, the Concord Monitor aptly reported on the New Year’s Eve “update”: Northern Pass misses deadline to unveil new route.

While NPT’s non-announcement wasn’t a surprise to CLF or others following the project closely, it was an important moment. It was, most of all, an embarrassing setback – the latest blown deadline after a series of blown deadlines stretching back to April 2011, when NPT decided to seek out a “new route” for the northernmost portion of the project.

NPT has been banking on its capacity to pay above-market land prices for a transmission corridor in the North Country. So far, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, its supporters from more than two hundred New Hampshire towns and cities and also from around the region and country, and a number of courageous landowners unwilling to sell at any price have achieved remarkable success in blocking NPT’s efforts on the ground, property-by-property. It would appear NPT’s confidence was misplaced.

For NU executives and investors, Hydro-Québec, and Northern Pass enthusiasts in southern New England, the project’s latest blown deadline should be a wake-up call.

It’s not working.

Not NPT’s back-room strategy to assemble a serpentine series of parcels for a new transmission corridor in the North Country, without any meaningful changes to the project’s design or the southern 80% of its proposed route.

Not NPT’s attempts to game the federal permitting process in its favor.

Not NPT’s bogus claims of environmental and economic benefits for New Hampshire and of wide support for the project.

Not NPT’s campaign to discredit affected citizens in the nearly three dozen communities that have declared opposition to the project and the entire New Hampshire conservation community as “not in my backyard” types and “special interests.”

In the New Year, Northern Pass’s developers should recognize that half of the “dialogue” they are promising is listening. The latest blown deadline should signal, loud and clear, that the current Northern Pass proposal won’t be successful, new route in Coös County or not.

The Latest on Northern Pass: A Year-End Roundup

Dec 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As CLF begins a third year of advocacy on the Northern Pass project, some updates are in order:

The “New Route” Drama

With 2013 only days away, it is looking more and more likely that Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) will not have secured 100% of a “new route” for the project’s northernmost portion by year end, as its public statements have been promising for months. As chronicled in a Boston Globe front-page story published earlier this week (the national daily’s first major story on Northern Pass), landowners are rejecting repeated offers from NPT, and our friends at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests have secured agreements to conserve key parcels along what appears to NPT’s preferred new path. (According to report in yesterday’s Union Leader, NPT officials are readying some kind of “update” on the project’s progress, which may raise more questions than it answers.)

If NPT fails to make good on its promised “new route,” it will be a singular embarrassment and signal more wasted months of self-inflicted delay. It also will continue NPT’s troubling pattern of misleading investors and peddling falsehoods about the project.

Whatever the success of NPT’s attempt to buy a transmission corridor through New Hampshire’s North Country, Northern Pass overall will remain the same flawed proposal that affected communities and stakeholders have overwhelmingly rejected over the last two years. Susan Arnold of the Appalachian Mountain Club and I penned an op-ed with this message, and it was widely published in New Hampshire newspapers this month. Please take a moment to read the op-ed here.

NU’s False Statements Get Noticed

Over the last month, the Boston Globe, the Concord Monitor, Connecticut newspapers, and NHPR (complete with audio) published stories on Northeast Utilities CEO Tom May’s blatantly false statements about support for Northern Pass. Instead of correcting the comments, NU’s spokesperson compounded Mr. May’s misstatements by insisting, contrary to any possible interpretation of the comments, that Mr. May was speaking about support for the Cape Wind project – a renewable energy proposal backed by a strong public campaign that is co-sponsored by many of the region’s environmental groups. The contrast with Northern Pass couldn’t be starker.

A Broken Permitting Process

The Department of Energy’s permitting process for the Northern Pass project remains tainted by its abdication of responsibility to select an independent and impartial contractor to prepare the crucial environmental impact statement for the project. In a recent letter to Senator Shaheen, DOE repeated its prior position that it sees nothing wrong with the way the current contractor team was selected because NPT’s extraordinary role in the selection process was not unusual. As I explained in October, a precedent of repeating a mistake is no justification. In November, CLF filed a new Freedom of Information Act request to understand the activities of the contractor team, DOE, and NPT during the last year and the extent of NPT’s influence over the direction of the permitting process.

An Underground Alternative Emerges

Meanwhile, we are learning more about a realistic alternative to NPT’s current proposal that could address some community concerns and provide new public revenues. In November, a state legislative commission released an important report highlighting the feasibility of siting underground high-voltage transmission lines in state-owned transportation corridors. The report can be found here (PDF) and followed a lengthy process of collecting testimony and input from dozens of stakeholders, including CLF and a number of other conservation organizations. The report found that underground transmission technologies and corridors are “being used extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally,” “may increase the reliability and security of the electric transmission system,” and “may be technically and financially competitive with other transmission designs and locations.” The commission pointed to other pending transmission projects that incorporate underground technologies sited in state-owned transportation corridors as an indication that this approach “can be technically and financially viable.” (Earlier this week, New York officials recommended approval of one of these projects – the Champlain Hudson Power Express between Québec and New York City, which now includes more than 120 miles of underground high-voltage transmission in active railroad corridors and highways.)

While the state agency officials participating in the commission were reluctant to endorse specific policy proposals in the report (which they saw as outside the commission’s charge), many commission members emphasized the need for a proactive, comprehensive energy plan and a regulatory framework that would help New Hampshire assure that new transmission projects provide meaningful public benefits.

A majority of the commission’s legislator members recommended changes to the state siting process for energy projects, including a requirement that a transmission developer bring forward an underground alternative to any overhead project. It is expected that these recommendations will be among the many legislative proposals to amend the state siting law during the 2013 session of the New Hampshire legislature.

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What will 2013 bring for the Northern Pass project and New Hampshire’s energy future? Stay updated by signing up for our newsletter Northern Pass Wire, and be sure to check in with CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass) and all of our latest Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I often point to recent news articles on Northern Pass.

Update: Support Grows for CLF’s Fight to Secure a Fair Review of Northern Pass

Oct 25, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Members of NH's Congressional delegation are demanding that DOE Secretary Steven Chu (pictured) explain DOE's process for selecting the current contractor team working on the Northern Pass envrionmental review.

Two weeks ago, CLF exposed and brought to the public’s attention internal government documents showing that the Department of Energy (DOE) has illegally allowed the developer of the Northern Pass transmission project, Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) to have significant and improper influence over the ongoing permitting process and environmental review of the project. After filing its concerns about the information with DOE, CLF issued a call to action, urging the public to join CLF in demanding that DOE replace the contractor team charged with preparing the crucial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which was handpicked by NPT, with a new, unbiased contractor or internal team with no conflict of interest.

We’re pleased to report that the responses – your responses – to the revelations and our call to action has been remarkable.

In the past two weeks, more than 300 members of the public (and counting) filed comments with DOE demanding replacement of the contractor team and a new commitment to a fair and open permitting process for Northern Pass. (You can take action yourself and file your own comment via this link.)

Yesterday, in a joint letter to DOE, a group of nine organizations representing New Hampshire’s conservation community and the grassroots opposition to Northern Pass, along with more than 60 individuals, expressed their deep concerns about the information exposed by CLF and called for a new EIS contractor with no conflict of interest. (Coverage on NHPR here.)

In the past week, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Senator Kelly Ayotte, and Congressman Charlie Bass have each sent letters to DOE Secretary Steven Chu demanding that the matter be reviewed and addressed immediately. (Union Leader coverage here.)

  • In her letter to Secretary Chu, Senator Jeanne Shaheen demands an “immediate, detailed response” from DOE to determine whether a conflict of interest exists, emphasizing that “in order for the public to have confidence in DOE and the outcome of any Presidential Permit application there can be no conflict of interest or appearance of conflict in the application process” and that “[a] loss of faith from stakeholders would be difficult, if not impossible, to restore. “
  • Senator Ayotte’s letter urges DOE to review CLF’s concerns and highlighted the need to “make certain that the outcome of this process is perceived as legitimate and that the process remains transparent.”
  • Congressman Bass is asking for a “detailed explanation of the DOE selection of the EIS contractor” in light of “the importance of this matter to the state of New Hampshire and the absolute necessity for a fair and transparent process for all stakeholders.”

It’s clear that the documents CLF disclosed provide only the part of the story of DOE’s mishandled process so far – we don’t know exactly what DOE did internally, in phone calls with NPT and others, or in closed-door in-person meetings. That’s why the members of the delegation are right that DOE owes them and the public a detailed explanation of what happened.

Since CLF’s detailed filing with DOE, we’ve actually learned more about the process from NPT than from DOE. In a letter sent to DOE last week, NPT admitted – rather than rebutted – the facts CLF has exposed. NPT admits that DOE directed it to conduct the contractor search, including the vetting of potential contractors for conflicts of interest .  NPT also admits that it – not DOE – drafted several key documents governing the environmental review and DOE’s arrangement with the contractor team. In effect, NPT admits its enormous, behind-the-scenes role and still can’t understand why anyone would have a problem with it. (We previously explained why NPT’s and DOE’s defensive responses to this effect were off the mark.)

NPT’s letter also publicly disclosed a crucial part of the story for the first time. According to a footnote in the letter, NPT was permitted to “rule out” the qualified environmental review teams at DOE’s own National Laboratories because their rates were higher than NPT wanted to pay. The fact that DOE deferred to NPT’s desire to keep down the costs of the federal environmental review of Northern Pass (even as it spends many multiples of market value to acquire properties in Coos County for the northernmost corridor for the project) is among the most troubling information we’ve yet obtained: if true, DOE did not even consider hiring its own experts to prepare the EIS. It’s hard to imagine clearer evidence that the contractor selection process violated the federal regulations requiring that that the choice be “solely” DOE’s or that the violation directly threatens the integrity and rigor of the environmental review.

Above all, the public’s responses to the revelations about NPT’s role in the DOE permitting process make crystal clear that New Hampshire deserves – and is insisting on – a truly fair, rigorous, and objective review of the Northern Pass project, not the deeply mishandled, applicant-driven process we’ve seen to date.

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.

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.

New Study: Energy Market Changes Undermine Economic Case for Northern Pass

Jun 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo credit: flickr/brianjmatis

This week, the New England Power Generators Association (the trade group for most of the region’s power plant companies, also known as NEPGA) released a new study analyzing the potential effect of the Northern Pass project on New England’s energy market – the first independent study addressing this issue. More than two years after the deeply flawed energy study that Northern Pass’s developer commissioned and has cited unrelentingly since, NEPGA’s study is an important, credible contribution to the public discussion surrounding the Northern Pass project.

The new study’s conclusion: the supposed energy benefits of the project – that it will lower the region’s energy costs and diversify the region’s power supply – won’t materialize. The study also shows that the economic merits of the current proposal are much weaker today than they were when the proposal was formulated two years ago, due to reductions in the cost of natural gas.

You can read NEPGA’s press release about the study (PDF) here and the full study (PDF) here. You’ll find press coverage of the study in the Union Leader here, in the Concord Monitor here, on WMUR-TV here, and on New Hampshire Public Radio here.

A few key takeaways:

  • The study’s finding that natural gas prices have declined is not news to Hydro-Québec or to Northern Pass’s developer, which is trumpeting new domestic natural gas supplies as a “game-changer.” What this means, in practical terms, is that the project will not put much downward pressure on the already-low regional market price of power. That’s a problem for Northern Pass: reducing regional energy costs is at the heart of the Northern Pass sales pitch. (As we’ve pointed out before, this “benefit” in fact perversely would put upward pressure on – rather than lower – the rates that most New Hampshire consumers pay.)
  • With the economics of the project so tenuous, there is a clear risk that the proponents will seek to qualify Northern Pass power for the benefits afforded to new renewable energy sources under state clean energy laws, a legal change that would unfairly undermine the market for renewable energy development in New England. (The risk that hydropower imports will need subsidies to cover new transmission costs has also recently been cited by critics of the Champlain Hudson Power Express project in New York.) If it’s true, as proponents insist, that Northern Pass doesn’t need subsidies, New England should accept nothing less than a binding legal commitment from Hydro-Québec and Northern Pass’s developer not to seek or accept them.
  • NEPGA’s study suggests that Northern Pass would shift Québec hydropower exports from New York and Ontario to New England. This effect may completely offset the supposed carbon emissions reductions from Northern Pass (which are inherently dubious for other reasons) because it is extremely likely that New York or Ontario would ramp up natural gas power plants to make up any deficit. In this regard, the study shows yet again that a rigorous big-picture regional analysis – of the kind that could be provided in the comprehensive regional assessment of our energy needs and the role, if any, for more Canadian imports that CLF and others have sought and Northern Pass’s developer has opposed – is essential to making a well-informed decision on a proposal like Northern Pass.
  • The developer’s hair-trigger response – to question the credibility of the sponsors of the study and not the study’s actual findings, a classic Bulverism – speaks volumes. At every turn, the developer has refused to acknowledge or address the problems with its current proposal, even in the face of unequivocal facts that debunk the supposed benefits. Sadly, we can expect the potential rollout of the “new route” for a piece of the project later this summer to follow a similar script.

Above all, NEPGA’s new study underscores that that no one should rely on the stale, incomplete, and misleading information that Northern Pass’s developer is using to sell the project to the public and to government agencies. We need a much deeper, clear-eyed understanding of what Northern Pass would mean for the region’s energy consumers, New Hampshire communities, and the environment 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.

The “New Route” for Northern Pass Won’t Cure Its Failings

May 24, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This summer, New Hampshire is bracing for news of the Northern Pass project’s future and its “new route.”

It’s now been nearly a year since the federal permitting process for the Northern Pass project was put on indefinite hold. North of Groveton, New Hampshire, the developer – Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) – is still working behind tightly closed doors to string together a new section of the project route, where there are no existing transmission corridors, by paying landowners substantial sums for property – in many cases, well above market value.

Earlier this month, the chief operating officer of NPT’s parent company, Northeast Utilities, told investors:

Where we are right now is in procuring the last 40 miles of the right-of-way, and I can tell you we are making very, very strong progress in lining up the right of way. I think we’re on track for the middle of the year, approximately August timeframe to have the right-of-way secured and then to be prepared to file with the [U.S. Department of Energy] the route….

NPT’s apparent plan (assuming it really can overcome the considerable obstacles to a new route):

Not so fast. Before the news arrives (if it does), it’s worth remembering that whatever new lines the developer manages to draw on the map do nothing to change the project’s DNA or to demonstrate that the project will benefit New Hampshire. A brief review is in order:

Where are the benefits for New Hampshire?

Through  costly marketing efforts, NPT has been trying to sell New Hampshire on the tremendous economic and environmental benefits of Northern Pass. But the supposed benefits just don’t hold up to scrutiny:

  • Reduced emissions from “clean power”?

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, CLF’s report on the most recent science demonstrated that new hydropower projects to supply power for Northern Pass are much worse for the climate than NPT’s false advertising claims have led the region to believe and are not meaningfully better than natural gas power plants (the power NPT predicts that Northern Pass would replace) in the early years after reservoirs are developed. As a result, contrary to mistaken but widely disseminated assumptions, importing hydropower from Canada is not a short-term solution that will reduce New England’s or New Hampshire’s carbon emissions. Indeed, the current proposal would have the perverse effect of protecting – rather than hastening the transition away from – PSNH’s low-performing, high-emitting power plants, which are New Hampshire’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. (Despite marketing the project based on its “clean” source of the power, NPT also refuses to acknowledge the relevance or importance of the troubling damage to ecosystems and communities that large-scale hydropower causes in Canada.)

  • Lower electric rates?

Those who would live with the new transmission lines, customers of NPT affiliate PSNH, are the least likely to benefit. Despite nearly two years of promises that PSNH would announce a plan to purchase Hydro-Québec hydropower for New Hampshire residents, there is still no agreement to do so. Any modest effects on the region’s wholesale electricity rates (which NPT’s consultant predicted based on outdated economic assumptions about energy costs) don’t translate into lower rates for PSNH customers (who instead are stuck paying the bill for PSNH’s inefficient and dirty power plants). In fact, if Northern Pass succeeds in lowering wholesale rates, it will likely worsen PSNH’s death spiral of increasing rates and fewer customers, leaving those residents and small businesses still getting power from PSNH with higher bills.

  • Growing New Hampshire’s clean energy economy and jobs?

There is a substantial risk that Northern Pass would swamp the market for renewable energy projects in New England, especially if state laws are amended to qualify Hydro-Québec power as “renewable.” Furthermore, the project’s high voltage direct current technology means that its massive investment in transmission capacity will wholly bypass the potentially fertile ground for renewable energy development in northern New England. Whatever the short-term construction jobs required (and NPT’s estimates are disputed), the current Northern Pass proposal may diminish the prospects for New Hampshire’s clean energy economy, including needed permanent jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency sectors.

No regional plan addressing new imports

Québec continues to implement its ambitious plan to develop more wild Boreal rivers into a new generation of massive hydropower projects, which will increase its export capabilities. This January, Hydro-Québec commissioned the final turbine at its latest hydropower facility (Eastmain 1-A) and will commission other turbines (at Sarcelle) as part of the same overall project later this year. Construction at the $8 billion Romaine River hydropower project (the subject of the film Seeking the Current) has begun and is ongoing, with the first unit expected to come online in 2014. Northeast Utilities has affirmed that Northern Pass will tap the power from these new projects. Meanwhile, Northern Pass competitors are moving forward with new transmission projects in eastern New England and in New York, among others:

Northern Pass and competitor transmission projects (source: ISO-NE)

More than a year ago, CLF and others urged the Department of Energy to weigh the region’s energy needs and develop a strategic regional plan that would determine a well-informed role for new Canadian hydropower imports in the northeastern United States’ energy future – before moving forward with the permitting process for Northern Pass. NPT’s only response was that responsible planning – encompassing the other pending transmission projects and a full consideration of the reasonable alternatives – would unacceptably delay its project – a truly ironic claim given NPT’s own, unforced, ongoing delay. More incredibly, the Department of Energy has so far sided with NPT, without explaining why.

So as Québec builds more dams and NPT buys up land, our region has no plan of its own. With no framework to understand the nature and extent of the appropriate role for Canadian hydropower, it is difficult if not impossible to make a sound, well-informed decision on whether Northern Pass – or projects like it – should proceed.

Community and grassroots reaction throughout New Hampshire

Since Northern Pass was announced in 2010, the project has inspired a broad-based and spirited movement of people throughout New Hampshire to oppose the current proposal. Last spring, there were massive turnouts at the Department of Energy’s public hearings on the project, with literally thousands attending and providing written and verbal comments both questioning the merits of the current proposal and urging a thorough environmental review. And earlier this year, a coalition of citizens and organizations of many political stripes succeeded in persuading New Hampshire’s legislature to enact a bill preventing projects like Northern Pass from using eminent domain. In another effort, more than 1,500 donors contributed total of $850,000 to enable the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to preserve the treasured New Hampshire landscape surrounding the historic Balsams resort, including a parcel that NPT had sought to purchase as part of Northern Pass’s transmission corridor. To date, town meeting voters in 32 local communities have passed resolutions and ordinances against the current proposal. Critically, most of these communities are located along the NPT’s “preferred route” that follows PSNH ‘s existing transmission corridor, south of any “new route” that NPT may announce.

NPT’s refusal to consider routing and technological alternatives

At every turn, NPT has rejected calls for in-depth consideration of potential alternatives to its current proposal, including use of an existing high-voltage transmission corridor that extends from Canada, through Vermont and western New Hampshire, to Massachusetts; burying transmission lines in transportation corridors, as is proposed in the New York and eastern New England projects mentioned above; or adding capacity to that same New York project, consistent with that project’s original proposal (it has since been scaled back). Indeed, Northern Pass’s response to the public’s opposition to the project was to “withdraw support” for alternative routes and double down on its “preferred route.” While this stance may be in the economic interest of NPT and PSNH, it’s grossly at odds with a fair, well-informed permitting process that would vindicate the public’s interest in a solution with minimal environmental and community impacts.

If and when NPT comes back from its year of buying up North Country land and relaunches its effort to secure approval of the Northern Pass project, with the only change to the proposal consisting of a new line on the map north of Groveton, there should be no mistake: the fundamental flaws in the current proposal remain. Likewise, whatever NPT’s “preferred route,” CLF remains as committed as ever to securing a comprehensive and rigorous permitting process that identifies superior alternatives and a final outcome that moves us toward – and not away from – a clean energy future for New Hampshire and the region.

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.

Clean Energy: A Key Ingredient in the Recipe for a Thriving New England Economy

Dec 16, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Courtesy ReillyButler @ flickr. Creative Commons

An incisive and clear essay by Peter Rothstein, President of the New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC), published on the Commonwealth Magazine website makes powerful and accurate points about the benefits of clean energy to the regional economy.  His analysis and arguments are deeply consistent with the points that CLF’s Jonathan Peress made in a recent entry on this blog outlining the benefits of the investments generated by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) documented in a study by the Analysis Group.

Unlike the attacks on the clean energy programs that he is responding to, Rothstein backs his assertions up with facts and figures. Here is a long quotation from his essay:

Clean energy investments have many positive benefits, making our energy infrastructure more efficient and sustainable and while growing the regional economy. Though you might not know it from the headlines, the clean energy sector is one of the few bright spots in the economy, growing steadily throughout the recession – 6.7 percent from July 2010 to July 2011 alone. Massachusetts is now home to more than 4,900 clean energy businesses and 64,000 clean energy workers – 1.5 percent of the Commonwealth’s workforce. This job growth is not a transfer of jobs from other industries – it’s a net increase that results from the Massachusetts innovation economy creating new value for national and international markets, not just local.

 Clean energy is starting to grow in much the same way as the IT and biotech sectors, which took decades to become powerhouses of our innovation economy. Massachusetts clean energy companies have brought significant new capital from around the world into Massachusetts, earning the largest per capita concentration of US Department of Energy innovation awards. Massachusetts companies have also brought in the second largest concentration of private venture capital in cleantech, a sector which grew 10-fold over the last decade.

 Consumers, businesses, and the Massachusetts economy all win if we stick with policies that drive clean energy investments. The combination of efficiency and renewables prescribed by the Green Communities Act is a positive force to control costs and make bills more predictable for consumers. While the prices of natural gas and oil are anything but predictable, the impact of investing in renewables is clear and positive as these technologies continue to get cheaper. Solar costs have come down nearly 60 percent since 2008 while wind turbine prices have dropped 18 percent.

It is indeed good news that new technologies not only confront the brutal logic of climate change but also boost our economy by virtue of being sound investments.  At such times as these, we should treasure every bit of good news we find.

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