Why We Need to Repair and Maximize the Efficiency of Our Existing Natural Gas System Before Looking to Expand

Dec 7, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As the exuberance for “cheap, domestic” natural gas has heightened, so has pressure to build new pipelines and power plants.  Often lost in the frenzy, however, is the sobering reality that our existing natural gas infrastructure is in need of some serious care and attention.  A recent study highlighted the fact that the pipelines that deliver gas to our homes and businesses are riddled with thousands of leaks.  A large number of those leaks can be blamed on a system that still includes significant amounts of cast iron–some of which dates back to the 1830s.

Explosions in Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011 as well as a 2009 explosion in Gloucester, MA were traced to aging cast iron.  Coupled with the massive San Bruno explosion, the issue spurred the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a “Call to Action” urging regulators and pipeline operators to accelerate the repair and replacement of high risk pipe.  Given this sense of urgency, the estimated timelines for replacement seem interminably long:

  •  81% of the remaining cast iron is buried in only 10 states:
State
Miles of
Cast/Wrought
Iron Mains (2011)
New Jersey
5,138
New York
4,541
Massachusetts
3,901
Pennsylvania
3,260
Michigan
3,153
Illinois
1,832
Connecticut
1,509
Maryland
1,422
Alabama
1,416
Missouri
1,180
  • Of these states, seven have implemented programs with deadlines for complete replacement:
  • New Jersey – 2035; New York – 2090; Pennsylvania – 2111; Michigan – 2040; Illinois – 2031; Alabama – 2040; Connecticut – 2080; Missouri – 2059.

Really? Decades to get the job done, at best?  And about a century to fully “modernize” pipes in some states? Sad, but true.

Though public safety is the primary driver behind pipe replacement and repair, whether the natural gas industry ultimately delivers on its claims for being less damaging to the climate than oil or coal depends on how well natural gas infrastructure addresses leaks.  In addition, those who are clamoring to blindly forge ahead expanding new natural gas infrastructure before we’ve fully assessed the condition of our current system would do well to remember the lessons that New England has already learned so well about the financial and environmental benefits of looking to efficiency first.  Not only is investment in new pipelines and power plants expensive, but it comes with serious and lasting environmental consequences whose costs are too often discounted or ignored.  Why not maximize opportunities for operating the existing natural gas system more efficiently first, before building (and paying for) more?

Despite the fact that we know natural gas prices are predictably volatile, several states have begun to take action to lock energy customers into long-term commitments to buy natural gas-fired power, thus locking them into paying for the fuel even when the price spikes.  For example, here in Massachusetts, one legislator has championed the idea of providing 10-20 year long term contracts for a new natural gas plant.  The problem with signing a long-term contract for electricity from gas is that while customers benefit when the cost of gas is low, they suffer when the price spikes, as it inevitably does.  That’s notably different from long-term contracts for renewable energy which typically have a guaranteed, fixed price.

Proposals for new massive interstate pipelines are in the works as well.  Spectra, a Houston-based natural gas pipeline company is proposing a $500 million expansion for Massachusetts. And all the lines on the map for proposed expansions of pipeline leading from the Marcellus Shale to the Northeast rival the Griswold Family Christmas lights display.

Before we spend billions on new infrastructure chasing the next gold rush, we must repair and rebuild our existing infrastructure and examine the tried and true tool of efficiency.   A recent study on the potential for natural gas efficiency in Massachusetts showed that efficiency could reduce winter electric demand enough to support the increased use of gas on the system without building new infrastructure:

The Benefits of Energy Efficiency

From Jonathan Peress's presentation at the Restructuring Roundtable on June 15, 2012

 

But there is a risk that regulators will not fully take these very real benefits into account as they review and approve the latest energy efficiency plans.  Indeed, traditional energy efficiency naysayers are using the low price of gas as an excuse to call for reduced investment in efficiency.

The bottom line is that natural gas does have a role in our energy future, but it  is one that must be carefully managed and minimized over time if we are to have any hope of averting climate catastrophe.  In the meantime, before we jump to expand new natural gas infrastructure, we need to look closely at what we already have in the ground and apply the lessons we’ve learned about efficiency.

 

 

 

Risky Business: Leaking Natural Gas Infrastructure and How to Fix It

Nov 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On the day after Thanksgiving, an explosion shook the City of Springfield. A natural gas pipeline leak led to the explosion that injured eighteen people and brought down two buildings.  The details behind the cause of this explosion are still being pieced together, but  once again, public confidence has been shaken in the pipeline system that is supposed to transport natural gas safely and reliably to homes, businesses and institutions in communities throughout the nation. Today, CLF is releasing a report on the importance of addressing problems with our aging, leaky natural gas  infrastructure. (You can download a free copy of that report here, and find the press release here.)

In Massachusetts, local distribution companies operate almost 21,000 miles of pipeline—that’s almost enough pipe to encircle the earth. But people seldom give much thought to those pipes that are running beneath their homes, beneath their businesses and beneath their feet.

That has been changing since the explosions that rocked San Bruno, California in 2010 and Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2011. Shortly afterwards, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation issued a national “Call to Action” to address pipeline safety, but there are still many hurdles to be overcome. One of the toughest obstacles to tackle is the replacement of aging, leak-prone pipelines and the swift repair of leaks on the system. Public safety is the primary driver behind the repair and replacement of aging pipes, but it is also important to recognize the added benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving a valuable resource, and reducing ratepayer costs.

The need for action is particularly acute in Massachusetts where over one-third of the system is considered “leak-prone”—made up of cast iron or unprotected steel pipe. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 50% of the cast iron left on the United States distribution system is centered in only four states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Though Massachusetts regulators have been working to find solutions to this problem, there is more to be done.

This infographic underscores the need for additional work in Massachusetts. So significant are the leaks that the gains from efficiency programs put in place by Massachusetts regulators have been overwhelmed by the amount of gas lost through leaky pipes. The costs of those leaks are being borne not by the utilities, or by the regulators, but by consumers. Utilities pass the cost of lost gas onto ratepayers to the tune of $38.8 million a year.

“Fugitive emissions from aging gas pipelines across Massachusetts are polluting our environment – releasing more greenhouse gases than we are saving through all of our energy efficiency efforts,” said D. Michael Langford, national president of the Utility Workers Union of America. “This is problematic for the environment and the economy, but fixing this problem provides an important opportunity. Putting people to work fixing leak-prone pipelines will save Massachusetts ratepayers money by simultaneously modernizing our pipe infrastructure, improving efficiency and helping to protect the environment.”

Fortunately, there are some clear policy options that could be implemented relatively quickly to prevent this valuable resource from endangering the public and vanishing into thin air.  “The good news is that not only would these policies increase public safety and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they also provide an opportunity to create good, local jobs,” according to Cindy Luppi, New England Director of Clean Water Action.  As she points out, “local neighborhoods, as well as first responders, will bear the brunt of impacts if this aging system experiences an explosion.   We hope all public officials will embrace real solutions that value health and safety, ratepayer equity and climate leadership.”

As outlined in our report, Into Thin Air, CLF is advocating for five specific policies to accelerate the replacement of aging pipe and ensure that existing pipeline is properly examined and repaired:

1)    Establishing Leak Classification and Repair Timelines that provide a uniform system for classifying leaks according to level of hazard and require repair within a specified time;

2)    Limiting or Ending Cost Recovery for Lost and Unaccounted for Gas so that companies have an incentive to identify the causes of lost gas and prevent them;

3)    Expanding existing replacement programs and adding performance benchmarks;

4)    Changing Service Quality Standards to include requirements for reducing leaks on the system;

5)    Enhancing monitoring and reporting requirements to give the public and regulators more information.

Over the coming months, we’ll be working with our allies at Clean Water Action and the BlueGreen Alliance to raise public awareness about the need to tackle this issue. We’ll also work with communities to make sure they know how to identify and report gas leaks and talk with them about the benefits of policies that make for a safer, cleaner natural gas system. If you’re interested in joining us, please contact me at scleveland@clf.org.

Getting Desperate: Northeast Utilities CEO Falsely Claims Wide Support for Northern Pass

Nov 15, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This week, the developer of the Northern Pass transmission project, Northeast Utilities (NU), sunk to a new low. In a presentation at a utility industry conference, NU CEO Tom May stated that:

  • “[T]his project has the support of every environmental group in New England basically.”

This is unequivocally untrue. In fact, CLF is not aware of a single New England environmental group that supports the Northern Pass project as proposed. You don’t have to take our word for it: literally dozens of New England’s environmental organizations – regional, state, and local – have registered significant concerns with, or outright opposition to, the proposed project in public comments to the U.S. Department of Energy. May’s statement is all the more puzzling given the energy that NU has devoted to attacking the efforts of groups like CLF (e.g., here and here), the Appalachian Mountain Club (e.g., here), and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (e.g., here).

  • The regional electric grid operator, ISO-NE, has been a “big proponent of this project.

This is also inaccurate. Northern Pass is an “elective” transmission project that is not intended to address any electric grid needs identified by ISO-NE. As a result, ISO-NE is obligated to consider the project objectively alongside competing elective projects (of which there are several), and Northern Pass is not specifically endorsed in any of ISO-NE’s planning documents, such as ISO-NE’s recently released 10-year Regional System Plan for the New England electric grid. Because it is an elective project that ISO-NE didn’t ask for and doesn’t plan to rely on, ISO-NE’s primary role in reviewing Northern Pass will be to assure that it won’t have an adverse impact on the reliability of the grid, not to advocate for the project.

  • New Hampshire’s new governor-elect, Maggie Hassan, is “supportive of the project.”

Governor-elect Hassan’s website contains this statement to the contrary:

Maggie opposes the first Northern Pass proposal.  As a state senator, Maggie worked to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private gain, and she opposes the use of eminent domain for this project.

Maggie believes that we must protect the scenic views of the North Country, which are vital to our tourism industry.  As Governor, she will ensure that, in accordance with the law, New Hampshire undertakes a rigorous review process of any proposal and provide significant opportunities for public voices to be heard.

Maggie hopes that the next proposal will address the concerns of the communities involved.  She believes that burying the lines would be a more appropriate approach, and also supports looking into home-grown energy sources, such as the new biomass plant under construction in Berlin.

Governor-elect Hassan has also expressed her support for Governor Lynch’s approach to the project: namely, that the directly affected communities must support the project before it moves forward. With almost all the communities on the record opposing the project (and no willingness on the part of Northern Pass’s developer to consider burial as an alternative to overhead lines), it’s impossible to characterize Governor-elect Hassan’s position as support for the project.

(May’s remarks on Northern Pass are at 21:00 – 25:30 in the webcast linked here.)

Since the Northern Pass project was announced more than two years ago, CLF has identified significant problems with the proposal, including the developer’s egregiously misleading marketing of the project’s environmental attributes and other supposed benefits. CLF has repeatedly emphasized, in the words of our President John Kassel, that “long-term supplies of hydro, wind and other sources of power – that respect and significantly benefit the landscape through which they are transmitted, support rather than undermine the development of New England’s own renewable energy resources, replace coal and other dirty fuels, keep the lights on at reasonable cost, and accurately account for their impacts – are what New England needs.” Thus far, the Northern Pass project, as proposed, meets none of these criteria, and therefore is not a project CLF can support.

Beyond our specific concerns, we’ve been fighting for some basic principles that should not be controversial, such as transparency, fairness, and especially honesty. Again and again, NU has unfortunately refused to abide by these principles, repeating discredited claims about the project’s emissions reductions and outdated accounts of other benefits, marginalizing the many stakeholders raising legitimate questions about the project, and employing bullying tactics against project opponents (for the most recent example, see here).

As we explained more than two months ago, Northern Pass still has no clear path forward. In concocting a story of broad-based political and stakeholder support, NU is – deliberately or recklessly – misleading its investors with plainly false information: an unacceptable breach of NU’s legal obligations as a public company and of investors’ trust. It is incumbent upon NU to correct the record immediately and to jettison its aggressively deceptive approach to securing approval of the Northern Pass project. The public deserves far, far better.

What the Election Means for New England’s, America’s Environmental Agenda

Nov 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

On Tuesday, Americans across New England joined their countrymen in casting their votes. As the results have become clear, one thing has become clear with it: It was a good night for science and for clean energy.

Maine, for instance, elected former wind developer Angus King as its new Senator, who ran with an ad dedicated to the need to address climate change and support sustainable energy. (Watch that ad here.) Meanwhile changes in both houses of Maine’s legislature are likely to dampen Governor LePage’s unpredictable but largely obstructionist posture. The same is true in Massachusetts, which elected Elizabeth Warren, a strong supporter for renewable energy and climate change mitigation. New Hampshire and Vermont also saw the pendulum swung strongly in a way that is likely to advance much needed efforts to protect the health of their environment and communities. Rhode Island seems to be the only state that has kept its status quo. (For full perspectives on each state, click here.)

In the end, New Englanders voted for a strong environmental agenda, and for candidates who shared that support. These local trends also broadly echo national voting trends. Obama, for instance, was strongly supported by Latino voters. A landmark 2012 study showed that 92% of Latino voters believe we have a responsibility to take care of the earth. The pro-environment agenda endorsed by Obama no doubt contributed to his support.

In reelecting Barack Obama, Americans also voted for an administration that has made science-friendly appointments to science positions, that has a high degree of scientific accomplishment, and that has been very supportive of science education and research.  And while the President was disappointingly silent about climate change and clean energy policy during the campaign, his administration’s pro-health and pro-environment actions to reduce toxic air pollution and to improve automobile  fuel economy standards no doubt resonated with voters nationally.

While there were many issues on the ballot, here in New England and across the country, there are also some very simple lessons from this election. The voters said a few things:

Yes, we believe in science.

Yes, we believe climate change is happening.

Yes, we need more sources of sustainable energy.

Yes, we want candidates who move us away from the dirty energy of the past to a more prosperous future.

And no, dirty energy, you cannot buy my vote.

Despite historic spending, the money spent by the dirty energy industry to try to buy this election didn’t seem to have much effect. In the end, clean energy and science were big winners.

New England cemented its reputation on Tuesday as a bastion of progressive environmental politics. Voters across our region want action on climate change, they want to advance clean energy, and they want to strengthen their communities.

It is my sincere hope that the elected officials in each state listen to their voters and make progress on these issues. It is also my sincere belief that we will be stronger as a movement if we work together across our New England: while some of our issues are local and some cry out for national leadership, many are regional in nature and can most effectively be addressed at the regional scale.

And then there’s the pragmatic reality that visionary leadership from Washington is very unlikely at this politically fractious time. But with New England’s leaders – of all political stripes – largely sharing a common vision for an economically, socially and environmentally thriving region, we can and must chart our own course right here. To succeed, we need to work together. When New England works together, we have shown that we can.

Sandy in New England: We Can and Must Change The Pattern of Loss

Nov 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity are rongly in evidence in New England. Credit: Block Island Times.

Each of us personally experienced in some way Superstorm Sandy slamming into our communities all along the East Coast. For many of us, the destruction has been widespread and severe and will be long-lasting. In New England, our neighbors in Rhode Island and Connecticut have been dealt a particularly devastating blow.

It has been encouraging to see communities coming together to help those in need, neighbors helping neighbors. Resources are being devoted efficiently to alleviate human suffering and to mitigate economic and ecological harm. At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity, and can-do attitude, that are noble and exhilarating elements of  American society are still robust, and strongly in evidence in New England.

We are also a prudent nation, and New Englanders – conditioned by harsh winters and stony soils – have long been among the most pragmatic of Americans. We watch the weather carefully (remember the Farmer’s Almanac?) and we adapt as necessary. As Robert Frost noted, we mend stone walls, both for the sake of better functioning walls and for stronger communities. We try hard to see things clearly. And we respond with a town meeting-inspired desire to promote the general public good, with as much wisdom as we can muster.

With that perspective in mind, let’s be clear: Our climate has changed, and will change further, in ways that only encourage extreme storm activity. (Insurance companies believe this because they look at the evidence objectively – we should be just as prudent.) Furthermore, we have built more and more infrastructure in increasingly perilous places, and we have less and less money to repair and replace it. It is imperative that we start re-planning our coastal and other vulnerable zones and re-building infrastructure in them for greater resiliency, expecting more extreme weather in the future. Doing otherwise would be reckless.

Over the last four decades, the number of tropical storms that are big enough to be named has tripled. Hurricane Sandy is the 19th such storm this year alone. With a month to go before the end of the so-called hurricane season, a season which itself now starts earlier and ends later than it did four decades ago, it’s possible we will run out of letters of the alphabet before we run out the season.

Higher sea levels, warmer ocean temperatures, and ice melt off Greenland – all were factors that made this storm a “Frankenstorm.” The literary reference is not accidental, either: in significant part we made this storm ourselves, by failing to dramatically reduce climate emissions. (For more on this, see this roundup of CLF stories on climate change and Sandy, on the implications for our economy and insurance, as well as here, here and here for information on hurricanes and climate science.)

While it is true that climate change and increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are not the sole cause of this specific hurricane, they are certainly the root cause. To borrow a line from Dave Roberts at Grist, the direct cause of the pain in my knees after I run on any specific afternoon may not be the fact that I am over 50, but my advancing age certainly has the most to do with that pain. That you cannot rationally deny.

So as we help our neighbors to clean out a flooded basement or garage, as we help to clear away debris or rebuild a wall, we must also think about what we can do to change the conditions that have made these 100-year storms an almost annual event. To simplify the problem, ask yourself:

  • What is it that you can do individually to reduce our collective contribution to the root cause?
  • Can you reduce the amount of energy you use at home?
  • Can you take public transit or car pool to avoid driving alone to work?
  • Can you contact your state representative or senator, your Governor, your Congresswoman or Senator and urge them to take some action to reduce our dependence on expensive and unfriendly fuel sources or develop an actual energy plan for our country?

In addition to all of this, we must to adapt to the changes that clearly are already underway. This is an economic imperative:  there isn’t enough money in our entire economy to keep rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, sewage treatment plants, airports, energy systems, buildings and homes where and as they currently exist.

We must improve the resiliency of our coastal zones, for starters. We’ve all seen the images: homes in Rhode Island reclaimed by the sea, seawalls in Massachusetts moved by the waves, and once dry neighborhoods turned into wetlands overnight. That’s only the destruction we can see: imagine what the seabed looks like following all of the sewage overflows, all of the debris from homes and industrial yards, and all of the traps and equipment lost by fishermen, lobstermen and boaters.

Too little attention has been paid to the state of our coastal zones, and how likely they are to ride out major storms – and storm surges – in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.  We’re throwing money at maintaining public infrastructure out of habit, and in some cases we might just as well dump cash into the ocean. And risks to private property – if it’s insured we’re all sharing the costs one way or another. How long can we sustain that?  In the tradition of a New England town meeting – where a community really decides how to spend its resources, for the benefit (and cost) of current and future generations – we need to start a serious conversation about what we’re going to invest in and why.

And let’s recall that a year ago – in the wake of Irene – it was flooding in Vermont, and western Massachusetts and Connecticut that presented these questions. All of the parts of New England that are sensitive to our changing climate need our attention: we need to make decisions now that will reduce costs and enhance the quality of our lives and our environment, for generations to come.

Now is the time. Now, more than ever before, our region needs to plan and act to reduce the impacts of these storms, as well as their frequency. CLF has been working on these issues for decades. Now, we will redouble our efforts. I hope you’ll join us in doing just that.

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.

Page 3 of 812345...Last »