Massachusetts Can’t Rely on the Northern Pass Proposal as a Short-Term Climate Solution

May 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Amid new scrutiny, it’s time for Massachusetts to reckon with the elephant in its climate plan (photo credit: flickr/David Blackwell)

The 5 million ton elephant in Massachusetts’s nation-leading climate action plan – the oversold and overstated greenhouse gas emissions reductions from new imports of Canadian hydropower comprising more than 20% of the state’s goal – is too big to ignore. That’s why it’s encouraging that the plan’s misplaced reliance on the Northern Pass transmission project is receiving new scrutiny.

Last December, CLF identified a significant problem with Massachusetts’s “Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020”: it adopted and relied on Northern Pass’s sales pitch that the project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 million tons annually and then claimed all those emissions reductions for Massachusetts. After examining the basis for the 5 million ton figure, we concluded that – no way around it – the figure was just wrong; it was calculated on the false assumption – belied by Hydro-Québec’s own data – that imported hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions.  The way Massachusetts was relying on Northern Pass was dubious for other reasons, including the unfairness of Massachusetts claiming all the benefits of a project that will not be located in the state and the fact that there is no concrete commitment regarding how much Northern Pass power Massachusetts electric customers will actually receive.

In February, the problem was confirmed in a technical report (PDF) commissioned by CLF and authored by Synapse Energy Economics, which found that hydropower facilities, especially new projects being built in Québec to supply new imports into New England, have substantial greenhouse emissions – emissions that for several years after construction can be comparable to the natural gas power that Northern Pass would replace.

Last month, Massachusetts think-tank MassINC released an independent analysis (PDF) of Massachusetts’s progress in meeting its ambitious emissions reduction goal – 25% below 1990 levels by the year 2020. The conclusion: Massachusetts is making great strides in some areas, but needs to redouble its efforts if it intends to achieve the goal. One of the biggest uncertainties: the Massachusetts climate plan’s reliance on new imports of Canadian hydropower through Northern Pass.

MassINC’s new report signals, as CLF has argued, that Massachusetts must look elsewhere to secure sufficient emissions reductions by 2020. The MassINC report makes the critical point that it is not up to Massachusetts whether the Northern Pass project is built – and there are many reasons to doubt that it ever will be – not the least of which are the extensive permitting processes and the committed and well-founded community opposition that the project must overcome. Citing Synapse’s findings on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower and the higher emissions associated with new hydropower facilities, the MassINC report suggests that any reliance on new imports as an emissions reduction strategy requires a credible, scientifically sound accounting of the targeted reductions, including whether and to what extent the power will come from new hydropower projects. Massachusetts needs to temper its enthusiasm for additional hydropower imports with the same scientific rigor and attention to detail reflected in the Patrick administration’s proposed regulations for biomass power.

The MassINC report is making waves, earning the lead, front page story recently in the Boston Sunday Globe and media coverage throughout the state. Consistent with the MassINC report, CLF does not rule out the possibility that new hydropower imports – if they have minimal environmental and community impacts on both sides of the border, avoid undermining local renewable and energy efficiency, displace our dirtiest power, and provide verifiable emissions reductions – could play a constructive role in a cleaner energy future for the region, particularly when considered over the long term.

But it’s time for the Patrick administration to reconsider its unfounded confidence that Northern Pass is some kind of clean energy panacea that will deliver a fifth of all needed emissions reductions by 2020. The science is clear: it’s not.

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.

Northern Pass Developers Refuse to Face Facts about Hydropower Emissions

Apr 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The American developers of the Northern Pass project are misleading the public about the project’s most touted environmental benefit (without which they “wouldn’t be doing this”): reducing New England’s greenhouse gas emissions. Presented with clear, unambiguous evidence that the current proposal would not meaningfully reduce emissions and that their public relations campaign is trading in falsehoods, the developers have done nothing to correct the record or provided any substantive response to the evidence.

In mid-February, CLF released a report on the science regarding large-scale hydropower’s emissions of greenhouse gases, the pollutants that are driving climate change. The conclusion: large-scale hydropower projects, especially new facilities, have substantial greenhouse gas emissions that, in their first years of operation, are equivalent to emissions from modern natural gas power plants.

This conclusion means that the proposed Northern Pass project, which would import up to 1,200 megawatts of new Canadian hydropower into New England and displace power from domestic natural gas plants, would not meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as the developers are claiming.  CLF’s report also demonstrated that the assumption at the heart of the developers’ claim that the Northern Pass project would reduce emissions by 5 million tons per year – that Canadian hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – is unequivocally false.

CLF sent a copy of the hydropower emissions report to Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT). In our transmittal letter, we made clear that the science summarized in the report (some of which was included in NPT’s own regulatory filings) clearly contradicted NPT’s marketing claims and urged NPT to:

  • correct the regulatory and public record by retracting and withdrawing all NPT prior statements that hydropower results in no emissions of greenhouse gases and that the Project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by any specific amount, and
  • refrain from making any claims regarding carbon dioxide emissions reductions associated with the Project unless and until those reductions are substantiated in a new technical analysis subject to public and permitting agency review.

To date, NPT has taken neither step. The false “no emissions” canard and the unsupported claim of 5 million tons of annual emissions reductions from the project are still prominent fixtures at NPT’s MyNewHampshire.com:

"No greenhouse gases" (source: http://www.northernpass.us/pdf/ads/Jack.pdf)

NPT spokesman Martin Murray did post a non-responsive comment on CLF’s website, to which I responded in detail here. On its own website, NPT then heralded a Hydro-Québec press release responding to the report, and I explained here why the press release neither reflected a close reading of the report nor challenged the report’s fundamental conclusions but, instead, underscored Hydro-Québec’s position that the major promise of new hydropower imports was as a long-term replacement for dirty, costly coal power plants like New Hampshire’s own Merrimack and Schiller Stations – not natural gas.

Where do NPT’s non-responses leave us? Unfortunately, NPT seems poised to continue on with its false and misleading public relations campaign and has shown no interest in an open, honest debate. CLF will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that the public and decision-makers are fully aware of all the issues associated with the Northern Pass proposal. 

You can support our work by becoming a CLF member and also by telling the permitting agency now reviewing the Northern Pass proposal to consider hydropower’s greenhouse gas emissions – and all the other impacts of Northern Pass power in Canada – as part of the agency’s environmental review – click here to take action.

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/northernpass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

ACTION ALERT: Tell the Department of Energy – Consider the Impacts of Northern Pass Hydropower!

Mar 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Seeking the Current filmmaker Nicolas Boisclair on the bank of Québec's Romaine River (photo courtesy Chercher le Courant)

This month, Seeking the Current wowed audiences across New Hampshire with the sublime beauty of Québec’s Romaine River – a wild, natural wonder that will essentially be destroyed by a new complex of hydropower projects, now under construction.  This complex is only one part of Hydro-Québec’s ongoing building boom – the keystone of the Canadian utility’s aggressive strategy to increase exports to the United States. The film also showed filmgoers that there are better, cheaper alternatives to new hydropower, including wind, solar photovoltaic, solar hot water, biogas, and investments in energy efficiency.  If these alternatives were scaled up and put in place throughout the province, Québec could still export more power to the United States – but without constructing new dams and reservoirs.

During the discussions after the film (one of which you can watch here), we heard the same question again and again – what can we do here in New England? The filmmaker Nicolas Boisclair observed that Hydro-Quebec’s strategy relies on opening new “doors” to New England and other export markets – like the Northern Pass transmission project. That’s another reason why CLF sees the permitting process for Northern Pass as so important – it is our opportunity to scrutinize whether we should open the door and on what terms, given all the impacts of the Northern Pass transmission project and the new Canadian hydropower the project makes possible.  And there is still time for all of us to tell the lead federal permitting agency for Northern Pass – the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) – to do its job by fully considering the impacts of Canadian hydropower.

Understanding Northern Pass’s power source is fundamental to understanding Northern Pass, especially with the developers of the project touting the environmental benefits of Canadian hydropower at every opportunity. PSNH President Gary Long even has said “we wouldn’t be doing” Northern Pass if it didn’t provide a “greener, cleaner energy future.” But when it comes to scrutinizing all the impacts of that same hydropower in the permitting process, the developers change their tune, arguing that the impacts of Hydro-Québec’s strategy to build more hydropower projects and export more power to the northeastern United States are “beyond the reach of” federal law.

On this point, the developers are wrong. Federal law requires that all direct and indirect effects of the Northern Pass project be analyzed and considered as part of DOE’s environmental review. In the words of the Council on Environmental Quality – the office that oversees all federal environmental reviews – “agencies must include analysis of reasonably foreseeable transboundary effects of proposed actions in their analysis of proposed actions in the United States.” The impacts of hydropower in Canada – so stunningly documented in Seeking the Current and so much more worse for the climate than the misleading story Northern Pass developers like to tell – are “reasonably foreseeable” consequences of the Northern Pass project, and the Department of Energy must consider them, alongside all the potential impacts of building a large-scale transmission line through New Hampshire. CLF made this clear in our comments to DOE a year ago, but it is critical that DOE hear from as many voices as possible.

Please join CLF in calling on the Department of Energy to consider the impacts of Northern Pass hydropower in Canada.  With only a few clicks, you can take action here.

Don’t Miss Your Chance to See Seeking the Current and Catch a Replay of Our Webinar on Importing Canadian Hydropower

Mar 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Seeking the Current filmmaker Nicolas Boisclair (photo: Red River Theatres in Concord)

The New Hampshire tour of Seeking the Current is off to an amazing start. So far, the documentary about Hydro-Québec’s Romaine River hydropower project has played to blockbuster audiences in Colebrook, Wolfeboro, Wilton, and Concord (including a sell-out last night), and we’ve had a great time participating in lively post-film discussions with filmgoers and the film’s director, Nicolas Boisclair.  Please join Nicolas and CLF at the remaining screenings and discussions that are coming up this week:

We also have a free showing of the film scheduled for April 5 in Keene, with a post-film discussion:

If you’ve seen the film, were as impressed as we were, and want to help show Seeking the Current in your community in the coming months, please let me know at ccourchesne@clf.org. We’d love to work with you to make it happen.

In conjunction with the film’s New Hampshire tour, CLF co-hosted a successful webinar last week on the environmental and energy implications of importing more large-scale hydropower into New England. During the webinar, Nicolas shared a preview of Seeking the Current, and participants learned how the issues raised by the film are critical to a full understanding of proposals to import more hydropower, including the Northern Pass project. You can download an audio-visual archive of the webinar at this link (~100 MB .wmv file; Windows compatible only).  To play the webinar, you may need to download some additional software, which you can access here.

Thanks to our many terrific co-sponsors (all of which are noted here) and the extraordinary people who helped bring Seeking the Current and its powerful message to New England audiences. Enjoy the show!

Join CLF Next Friday March 9 for a Special Webinar on Importing Canadian Hydropower

Mar 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

With Northern Pass and other new transmission projects on the horizon, CLF and other leading New Hampshire environmental organizations are presenting a special free webinar on what it really means for New England to import more hydroelectric power from Canada.

The webinar will be next Friday, March 9, 2012, 2:30 to 4pm EST. Click here to register. All you’ll need is a computer and an Internet connection. Please join us, and spread the word to friends, family, and colleagues. The webinar is sponsored by CLF and our friends at the Appalachian Mountain Club, Conservation New Hampshire, The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF). 

A scene along the Romaine River from Seeking the Current (copyright Chercher le Courant)

The idea is to provide an accessible summary of the environmental and energy implications of imports, including the often-overlooked impacts of the new hydropower developments in Canada that will supply the power. One of the key questions is what new imports will really mean for the climate, and I’ll explain the findings of a recent report commissioned by CLF on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower. As we’ve often pointed out, whether and how to import more hydropower from Canada is a critical issue for the entire region’s energy future. And it’s not just about New Hampshire and Northern Pass — just last week, the developer of the Champlain Hudson project in New York announced that it is moving forward with a revised proposal for an underwater and underground transmisssion line between Canada and New York City that will have the support of state officials, municipal governments, and environmental groups.

During the webinar, you’ll hear from me, and also from Tom Irwin, CLF Vice-President and CLF-NH Director; Ken Kimball, AMC Director of Research; and Will Abbott, SPNHF Vice President for Policy and Land Management.

The webinar will feature a special guest appearance by Québecois filmmaker Nicolas Boisclair, who will be in New Hampshire this month for a series of screenings of his documentary film, Seeking the Current, which shines an unsparing light on Hydro-Québec and its ongoing $8 billion hydropower project on the Romaine River. We’ve put all the details on the screenings (and the webinar too) at this link.

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.

Northern Pass Response to Hydropower Emissions Research Rings Hollow

Feb 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

(photo credit: flickr/massdistraction)

We appreciate Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray’s comment on my prior post regarding recent research on the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower and the implications for the Northern Pass project. We are also grateful for Hydro-Québec environment advisor Dr. Alain Tremblay’s comment, to which I responded here.

Although we welcome the feedback and dialogue, we are discouraged that Mr. Murray’s comment addresses none of the substantive points raised by the Synapse report (PDF) or my post discussing the report. We are disappointed as well that the comment dismisses the fundamental need identified by the Synapse report – an honest and credible accounting for the effect of new imports on overall greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of working on providing such an accounting and engaging in a real dialogue about this issue, Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) has invested heavily in advertising for the Northern Pass project, including the promotion of an emissions reductions figure reliant on new reservoirs that is based on an erroneous zero-emissions assumption. That assumption is contradicted by the Synapse report and Hydro-Québec’s own research, and the marketing claims on this issue (see, for example, here) are thus false and misleading and should be withdrawn immediately, as we have requested in a separate communication to NPT.

The citation to the Climate Action Plan sidesteps the merits of the emissions reduction issue entirely:

  • First, the Task Force did not have the information in the Synapse report at its disposal in making its recommendations.
  • Second, the Climate Action Plan contains important qualifications on its import recommendation that NPT does not acknowledge.  The recommendation itself contains the proviso that new imports should be pursued “with consideration for the broader environmental impacts of the power sources as well as the impacts that this imported power would have on the development of in‐state renewable resources.” That consideration is the work CLF believe needs to happen but has not.  In this regard, NPT’s dismissal of all questions or “challenges” on these issues is flatly inconsistent with the Climate Action Plan’s recommendation.
  • Third, the Climate Action Plan appendix discussing the recommendation (PDF) states that “[t]he benefits to electric customers would be determined by the specific terms of any purchased power agreement and  the reductions to New England fossil fuel generation which would be subject to state regulatory  review and confirmation at the time of any filings for state approval.” (p. 29) In other words, the economic and environmental benefits from imports depend on the details of the proposal, specifically the terms and what generation is displaced. Yet the current proposal includes no Power Purchase Agreement that would benefit PSNH’s own energy consumers, assumes that any future power purchase agreement will be for only a small amount of power, and provides no guarantee or commitment that the imported power will reduce emissions in a meaningful way. The Synapse report directly refutes the only analysis of emissions reductions that NPT has made publicly available. The Climate Action Plan underscores the fundamental need for imports to provide real environmental and economic benefits for New Hampshire, and the current proposal on the table does virtually nothing to meet that need.
  • Fourth, unlike all other recommendations in the Plan, enabling importation of Canadian hydro received a number of “no” votes from the Task Force, “due to concerns over the potential environmental impacts of the imported power and the effect imported power might have on development of in-state renewable resources.” Public comments  from a number of stakeholders, including CLF, questioned the entire recommendation based on these concerns. (Comments are summarized at pp. 246-258 of this PDF.) There was a debate then, and that debate should continue now, based on well-sourced and credible information like the Synapse report.

We agree that there is no one single solution to the climate challenge. But any serious effort to confront climate change in New Hampshire must also confront the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – PSNH’s aging, inefficient, and uneconomic fossil fuel power plants. As Dr. Tremblay of Hydro-Québec admitted, in comments that NPT is now approvingly citing, “the major environmental challenge facing North America is to replace coal to generate power….” CLF couldn’t agree more.

It seems NPT and its affiliates do not agree with Dr. Tremblay. Importing an additional 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada will not help move New England toward a clean energy future if, as the current proposal is structured and as PSNH has repeatedly claimed, imports would only displace relatively clean natural gas generation, and not the power plants that are worst for the climate, like PSNH’s coal-fired units at Merrimack and Schiller Stations.

With Northern Pass proponent PSNH fighting tooth and nail to protect its guaranteed ratepayer subsidy to keep running those units, the supposed commitment of Northern Pass’s developers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions appears to be a textbook example of a greenwash. Given the emissions data presented in the Synapse report, it is clear to CLF that, if Northern Pass proceeds as proposed, our region will forfeit a major opportunity for meaningful action to confront climate change.

Latest Research: Northern Pass Worse for the Climate than Advertised

Feb 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  10 Comment »

Hydro-Québec hydroelectric projects recently commissioned or under construction (Source: Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife)

Reducing the region’s emissions of greenhouse gases is supposedly the Northern Pass project’s marquee public benefit, its raison d’être as they say in Québec. But would the Northern Pass project do the job?

The answer appears to be: probably not any time soon. Today, CLF is releasing a ground-breaking new technical report regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian hydropower. The conclusions of the report show that large-scale hydropower, especially new reservoirs, is worse for the climate than Northern Pass’s developers are claiming, with substantial greenhouse gas emissions that are comparable to those of modern natural gas-fired power plants. The current Northern Pass proposal substitutes hydropower for natural gas in New England’s energy mix, meaning that the project won’t reduce emissions by much if any, especially in the near term.

Authored by Synapse Energy Economics, the technical report released today, Hydropower Greenhouse Gas Emissions: State of the Research, is an independent survey of the recent science regarding the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower. The science is clear that the reservoirs behind hydropower dams emit greenhouse gases, relative to the forests and wetlands they flood (which often take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere). Overall, reservoirs in Québec emit more greenhouse gases over the course of their lives than renewables like wind, solar, and run of river hydropower.

A crucial finding of the report concerns new reservoirs. In the first several years after a reservoir is dammed, large amounts of newly inundated organic material decompose, emitting carbon dioxide that diffuses through the water into the atmosphere. As a result, a reservoir’s net emissions in its early years are very high – starting out even higher than emissions from a natural gas power plant per unit of power generated. This effect is evident in recent, rigorous analyses by several teams of scientists, based on data collected at Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain 1 reservoir in northern Québec. This reservoir is the very same project that Northeast Utilities’ CFO testified under oath last year would be the primary, if not exclusive, source of Northern Pass’s power. Even when their emissions are projected over their lifetimes, newly flooded Canadian reservoirs may emit nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases emitted by natural gas power plants. By contrast, reservoirs emit only about 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted by typical coal-fired power plants.

This conclusion is the death knell for Northern Pass Transmission, LLC’s (NPT) claim that the current Northern Pass proposal would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5 million tons. We explained the claim’s key flaw – the report on which it is based erroneously assumes that hydropower has no greenhouse gas emissions – back in August. In light of today’s report, CLF is calling on NPT and its partners NU, NSTAR, and PSNH to stop citing that erroneous number and to withdraw all marketing materials for the Northern Pass project that state or imply that Canadian hydropower has no or minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Hydro-Québec is building new hydropower projects that are intended to facilitate new exports to the northeastern United States. To the extent that the prospect of exports is driving the construction of new reservoirs, Northern Pass and projects like it will be responsible for those reservoirs’ emissions and also their other adverse environmental impacts. And if, as the developers’ analysis concluded, the power to be displaced by imports through Northern Pass is overwhelmingly from natural gas plants, the emissions from a succession of new reservoirs in Canada may replace – perhaps completely for a period of time – the emissions of displaced natural gas power. In that scenario, the Northern Pass project would do little – or even nothing – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the near-term.

The report makes another critical point about a different kind of displacement that could occur with Northern Pass. According to a recent study, stepping up Hydro-Québec’s exports to the United States may actually decrease its exports to other provinces in Canada, where the need for fossil fuel-fired power then increases, resulting in additional emissions. Those emissions may cancel out any reductions from displaced power in the United States. This effect is a potential blind spot that needs to be considered and analyzed as part of the public review of any new imports.

The report’s findings are important information regarding the environmental impacts of the project that the U.S. Department of Energy must consider as part of its review of Northern Pass’s application for a Presidential Permit. For that reason, earlier today, CLF submitted the report to DOE along with Synapse’s analysis of the potential effect of Northern Pass on the regional market for renewable energy.

To CLF, the report suggests that new imports could be part of the region’s climate strategy if imports:

  • displace dirty power, like project sponsor PSNH’s uneconomic, subsidized power plants, to achieve a meaningful net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without increasing the use of fossil fuel-fired power plants in Canada;
  • support – rather than undermine – local renewable projects and energy efficiency efforts in New England; and
  • have minimal impacts on the environment and communities on both sides of the border.

PSNH is in a unique position to take its coal units offline, in conjunction with its potential power purchase agreement with Hydro-Québec that is supposedly in the works. Instead, PSNH is marching on with its broken coal-based business model at great cost to New Hampshire consumers and the environment. Unless the proposal changes, the Northern Pass project does not deliver on the developers’ claims and will not advance a cleaner energy future for New England.

Northern Pass Attacks Land Conservation in New Hampshire, Loses in the First Round

Dec 28, 2011 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

courtesy Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests

Last week brought a fitting capstone to the botched year-long rollout of the Northern Pass project.  In a disturbing turn of events, the project developers sought to scuttle a historic plan to preserve a storied wilderness in New Hampshire’s North Country. Their attempt failed, but what the episode says about their future tactics is anything but encouraging for New Hampshire and the region.

Northern Pass Transmission, LLC (NPT) – a partnership between Northeast Utilities and NSTAR – has spent 2011:

It has been clear for some time that the current proposal is really about two things – securing profits for Hydro-Québec and propping up NU subsidiary PSNH’s weakening bottom line. CLF is not alone in wondering: what’s in it for New Hampshire?

Last week was a vivid preview. And if you care about New Hampshire’s iconic wilderness landscapes or the organizations that protect them, it’s not a pretty picture.

Earlier this fall, we learned that NPT was bidding to purchase a strip of land through one of the North Country’s crown jewels – the magnificent Balsams estate in Dixville Notch – from its owner, the Neil Tillotson Trust.

Enter the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), a key collaborator with CLF on Northern Pass advocacy and one of the state’s leading land conservation organizations. Culminating a decade of effort to preserve the Balsams landscape, SPNHF secured from the Trust a conservation easement over 5,800 acres of spectacular wilderness surrounding the resort, provided that SPNHF raises $850,000 for the easement by mid-January. (You can follow the effort here. Word is that, as of today, SPNHF is nearly a third of the way there.) The easement would preclude any transmission corridor.

The land is an ecological and scenic marvel, and the deal marks a historic land preservation achievement for SPNHF, the Trust, and New Hampshire as a whole.

The Balsams Resort in winter (photo credit: j-fi/flickr)

NPT’s bizarre and audacious response: launch a legal attack on the conservation plan.

Last week, NPT asked the state Attorney General’s Office to disapprove the easement on the ground that NPT’s earlier bid was higher. Then on Friday of last week, NPT made a very public offer to buy both the transmission corridor and the conservation easement, which would secure a right to site the Northern Pass project on the Balsams property. The last move was particularly odd because most bidding wars don’t involve publicly bullying a seller – a respected charitable trust no less – into accepting an offer.

As noted in the Concord Monitor and on NHPR, news came late Friday afternoon that the state Attorney General’s Office had approved the sale of the conservation easement to SPNHF, despite NPT’s objections and richer offers. The approval letter noted that it was well within the Trust’s charitable purposes and discretion to sell the easement to SPNHF for less than NPT’s offer. In other words, the Trust should be free to decide that preserving the Balsams property for the benefit of the North Country is more important than the Trust’s financial return.

Why was NPT’s attack on the conservation plan so troubling?

  • NPT sought to undermine land preservation efforts throughout New Hampshire. Land preservation almost always requires generosity – the landowner’s decision to accept less than market value or to make an outright donation of an easement. If it had been successful, NPT’s legal attack would have left no room for such generosity, granting any private developer the power to block a landowning non-profit’s preservation of its land whenever the developer offered more money than the conservation organization or community that would hold the conservation easement.
  • NPT is on war footing.  NPT is pursuing the equivalent of scorched earth litigation, resorting to strong-arm tactics and legal appeals to the state, including a threat of litigation to block the SPNHF easement that, as of today, remains on the table. At this early stage of the project’s permitting, this is exactly the opposite of what we need – a well-informed regional and statewide dialogue about our energy future, the project’s potential role if any, and the alternatives to traditional overhead lines along NPT’s proposed route.
  • NPT has broken its promise to find a route “that has support of property owners.”  The Trust made a decision not to sell to NPT; within days, NPT was crying foul to a state official.  NPT’s appeal to the state reveals, for all to see, that NPT will respect the will of landowners only when that will is to sell NPT the land it wants. As others pointed out before the Attorney General Office’s decision, NPT’s carefully-worded disinterest in using eminent domain (except as a “very last resort,” in the words of PSNH President Gary Long) is no longer credible, if it ever was.
  • NPT is willing to spend huge sums, but only to get the project it wants. Without hesitation or public discussion, NPT offered what amounts to a $1 million donation (of Hydro-Québec’s money) to the Trust, including a $200,000 grant to Colebrook Hospital and the money for the Balsams conservation easement. Clearly, NPT is willing to spend millions above and beyond market costs to get the route it wants, even as it rejects as too costly alternatives that could be better for New Hampshire.

Above all, the Balsams episode shows that NPT is not pursuing the Northern Pass proposal as a public-minded enterprise for the “good of all of New Hampshire.” With so much at stake for the region and New Hampshire, CLF’s work of 2012 is to secure a searching and rigorous public review process that will scrutinize every element of the Northern Pass project and ensure that the public interest – and not the dollars in NPT’s coffers – determines the project’s fate.

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/northernpass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

Northern Pass: The 5 million ton elephant in Massachusetts’s climate plan

Dec 1, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo credit: flickr/OpenThreads

The Northern Pass transmission project is being pitched by its developers as a clean energy proposal for New Hampshire. As I’ve pointed out before, Northern Pass is a regional proposal with dubious benefits in the Granite State. Unfortunately, the developers’ hollow promises have found an audience further south, in Massachusetts.

From the public discussion as well as the developers’ PR blitz, you might think that the Northern Pass – a high voltage transmission line that would extend 180 miles from the New Hampshire-Canada border, through the White Mountains, to Deerfield, New Hampshire – is just a New Hampshire issue. It’s not: the ramifications of this project extend well beyond New Hampshire.  The implications are both regional and enduring, as they will shape the energy future of New England for decades to come.

Given this context, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should be leading a pro-active, regional assessment of the options for additional imports of hydroelectric power from Canada. So far, DOE has squandered its opportunity to lead such an assessment while the Northern Pass permitting process remains on indefinite hold. Since April of this year, CLF has been urging the DOE to use this delay to deliver a fair, big picture review of the Northern Pass. It’s what New England deserves, and what DOE owes the public.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the media or the developers’ “MyNewHampshire” advertising campaign, Northern Pass also is a Massachusetts issue. Why? As if hidden in plain view, it’s at the center of Massachusetts’s plan to combat climate change. You might say it’s the elephant in the room.

Massachusetts’s 2010 “Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020” (the Plan) seeks to reduce Massachusetts’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. CLF has applauded the Plan as an aggressive, nation-leading effort. However, we long have been dubious of the Plan’s reliance on potential imports of Canadian hydropower.

Regrettably, the final Plan (at pp. 45-46) uncritically bought the Northern Pass developers’ line that Northern Pass will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.1 million metric tons annually by 2020. Where does the Plan get that figure? The figure was never publicly vetted or discussed during the public planning process in which CLF was an active participant. The only citations are to the developers’ website and to a 2010 report by an energy consulting firm hired by the developers. That’s it. Massachusetts is taking the developers’ sales pitch at face value.

The Plan goes on to claim that Massachusetts can take credit for the entire reduction, even though the current Northern Pass proposal, by design, does not guarantee that Massachusetts customers will purchase any hydropower from Hydro-Québec through Northern Pass or otherwise. So, just how much of Massachusetts’s ambitious GHG reduction goal does Northern Pass’s supposed 5 million tons represent? More than 70% of the Plan’s reduction goal for the electric sector and more than 20% of the Plan’s goal overall. Of the Plan’s “portfolio” of initiatives, the Plan credits Northern Pass with achieving the single highest amount of emissions reductions.

Northern Pass is a highly questionable element of the Plan for a number of reasons. First, it’s not clear how much power Massachusetts will actually get from Northern Pass. Second, the project faces myriad permitting hurdles and isn’t anywhere close to a done deal. Third, Massachusetts has no direct role in the project’s development.

But it’s worse than that. The report by the developers’ consultant – and its 5.1 million ton estimate of Northern Pass’s reductions of GHG emissions – is simply wrong. The report’s error is a contagion that directly undermines the Plan’s ambitious GHG reduction goal.

To make a long story short, the report assumes that Canadian hydropower results in no GHG emissions. That assumption is contradicted by Hydro-Québec’s own field research on the GHG emissions from the recently constructed Eastmain reservoir – the very reservoir where, according to testimony by a developer executive, Northern Pass’s power will be generated.  Together with other scientific literature, the research demonstrates that reservoirs have long-term, non-zero net GHG emissions (in part because they permanently eliminate important carbon “sinks” that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as boreal forests). That makes the  5 million tons, at a minimum, blatantly inflated.

But even more importantly for Northern Pass and Massachusetts’s GHG reduction goal, the same research suggests that Northern Pass may not reduce GHG emissions at all before 2020, if ever. According to Hydro-Québec, a newly inundated reservoir has GHG emissions comparable to a modern natural gas power plant in the decade following flooding.  This chart from a Hydro-Québec paper, which itself likely underestimates reservoir emissions over time, tells the tale:

Natural gas plant and reservoir (Eastmain 1) emissions are similar in first decade of reservoir operation

And according to the developers’ projections, Northern Pass would overwhelmingly displace natural gas-fired generation (itself a missed opportunity to displace the output of coal-fired power plants).  If Northern Pass relies on new hydroelectric facilities in Canada for its power (as the developers and their consultant are assuming), Northern Pass as proposed will have no net effect on emissions in its early years and may never result in meaningful reductions, let alone 5 million tons per year.

Without the claimed reductions from Northern Pass, the Plan cannot come close to achieving the bold 25% reduction in GHG emissions that made headlines, even if every element of the Plan is implemented. In other words, there is a 5 million ton hole in the Plan that Massachusetts needs to fill with real and verifiable reductions.

CLF has been making this case during Massachusetts regulators’ review of the proposed merger of Northeast Utilities and NSTAR – the same companies behind Northern Pass – that week approval to form the largest electric utility in New England. Piggybacking on the Plan, Northern Pass’s developers are citing the emissions reductions from the project as the premier “climate” benefit that Massachusetts will supposedly get from the merger. That benefit appears right now to be a zero; particularly in light of the merger’s negative impacts, Massachusetts deserves a lot more to satisfy the “net benefit” standard that the merger must achieve to gain approval.

In the months ahead, we also will be pushing back against Hydro-Québec and its corporate allies in Massachusetts, who are now urging radical changes to Massachusetts’s clean energy laws that would subsidize large-scale hydropower imports, at the expense of local renewable energy projects that provide jobs and economic benefits in Massachusetts and throughout New England. The Plan itself explains the reason this is a bad idea – large hydro is a mature technology that is economic and cost-competitive without any additional public support; large hydro also has caused dramatic environmental damage and major disruptions to native communities in Canada. If imports secure little or no reduction in GHG emissions, the case for new subsidies disappears altogether.

Some may be hoping that no one is looking seriously at what Northern Pass would mean for the climate and that the Northern Pass debate will remain within New Hampshire’s borders. CLF, however, is committed to securing real scrutiny of Northern Pass’s misleading claims, ridding Massachusetts’s climate plan of its faulty reliance on Northern Pass, and advancing clean energy solutions that will, in fact, meaningfully reduce our region’s carbon footprint while enabling Massachusetts to achieve its full 25% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020.

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