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.

Two Years Later and No Path Forward for Northern Pass

Sep 5, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

New Video: Real New Hampshire Voices Speak Out on the Northern Pass Proposal

Jun 29, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Northern Pass’s developer has a long track record of public statements attributing the deep New Hampshire opposition to the current proposal to the go-to developer bogeyman – “not in my backyard” obstructionism. Accusing critics of short-sighted “NIMBYism” is even part of Northern Pass’s expensive marketing campaign (which suffers from other deliberately false and misleading claims). Continuing this tradition, the CEO of the developer’s parent company recently derided opponents as “special interests.”

This is loaded, derogatory rhetoric, and exactly the wrong frame for having any constructive dialogue with the New Hampshire communities that face living with the project’s major new infrastructure, as I argued on NHPR last year. And on a personal level, after nearly a year and a half of advocacy on the Northern Pass project, I can say with certainty that the New Hampshire opponents of the current proposal don’t fit the caricature. Those with backyards that would be affected are indeed concerned about their homes, but also about the broader issues of whether the project will benefit their communities, New Hampshire, and the region. Like CLF, they aren’t seeing meaningful public benefits that would make the burdens of the project worth bearing.

Our colleagues at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests recently produced a pair of videos that help bring to life some of New Hampshire’s very real concerns about the project, many of which are key parts of CLF’s Northern Pass advocacy.

In this video, Appalachian Mountain Club’s Susan Arnold explains our history of protecting the White Mountain National Forest and the problems with Northern Pass’s proposal to build new towers through this nationally treasured landscape:

(If impacts in the White Mountain National Forest are of interest to you, I’d also recommend a recently launched resource with lots of information on the details of Northern Pass’s current proposal and the unique permitting process that applies: ProtectWMNF.org.)

In this video, you’ll meet a Deerfield, NH family that would be directly affected by the project:

(In line with prior non-responses to criticism and strong-arm tactics, Northern Pass’s developer posted an odd rebuttal to this video on its website, attacking as “inaccurate” certain general statements and images showing towers close to the family’s house. Leaving aside that accuracy in communications hasn’t been its own priority, the developer has released no detailed mile-by-mile design of the project to back up its post, nor does it deny that its representatives told the family that towers could be built very close to their home. And if you watch the video, it’s clear that the “rebuttal” is more about trying to discredit the Forest Society than providing a meaningful response to the video’s substance.)

From the families who live along the proposed route, to the small businesspeople in the state’s tourist economy who are concerned about the effect of the project on their livelihoods and communities, to the New Hampshire residents and groups questioning the wisdom of erecting massive new towers through treasured landscapes like the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire’s many critical voices are focused on real, legitimate concerns about the impacts of Northern Pass on our state and beyond. We will not be marginalized, bullied, or deterred as we raise these issues in public forums and in the federal and state permitting processes to come.

CLF was not involved in the production or content of the videos above. They are posted here with the permission of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

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.

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.

What the Keystone XL decision should mean for Northern Pass

Nov 17, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Protesters against Keystone XL - November 6, 2011 (photo credit: flickr/tarsandsaction)

Last week, a major disaster for our climate and our nation’s clean energy future was averted – at least for now – when the Obama administration announced that it won’t consider approving the Keystone XL pipeline’s border crossing permit before it reconsiders the Keystone XL pipeline’s environmental impacts and the potential alternatives to the proposal on the table.  For all the reasons that my colleague Melissa Hoffer articulated in her post last week, the Keystone XL victory was a resounding, if limited, triumph with important lessons for environmental and climate advocates across the country as we confront, one battle at a time, the seemingly overwhelming challenge of solving the climate crisis.

The Keystone XL decision also hits home in another way. It sends an unmistakable signal that the federal government’s review process for New England’s own international energy proposal – the Northern Pass transmission project – needs the same type of new direction.

The parallels between the State Department’s Keystone XL environmental review and the mishandled first year of the U.S. Department of Energy’s review of Northern Pass are striking. In both cases, we saw:

  • Troubling, improperly close relationships between the developer and the supposedly independent contractors conducting the environmental review, with unfair and inappropriate developer influence on the review’s trajectory, undermining the public legitimacy of the review process;
  • An extraordinary grassroots uprising against the proposal from diverse groups of residents, landowners, communities, businesses, and conservation and environmental groups;
  • Massively expensive lobbying and public relations campaigns by proponents designed to confuse and mislead lawmakers and the public
  • Repeated failures by permitting agencies to ensure fair, open, and truly comprehensive review of the full range of impacts, including climate impacts, and the reasonable alternatives for meeting our energy needs in other, less environmentally damaging ways.

With all the legal, procedural, and substantive deficiencies our national advocate colleagues have been pointing out for years, the Keystone XL review (before last week) is a dramatic example of what we can’t allow to happen with Northern Pass. Right now, things don’t look good – it appears that the Department of Energy is engaging in an “applicant-driven,” narrow review of a few potential project routes, not the broad, searching analysis CLF and many others have demanded again and again (and again).  Last week’s decision to conduct a wide-ranging new review of Keystone XL shows that there is still the opportunity (and now a clear precedent) for the Department of Energy to bring the same spirit of renewed scrutiny and public responsiveness to its review of Northern Pass.

New Hampshire and New England deserve an impartial, comprehensive, and rigorous review of the Northern Pass project – and all reasonable alternatives – by the permitting agencies entrusted with protecting the public interest. Indeed, what we need now is a serious regional plan that addresses whether and how best to import more Canadian hydropower into New England and the northeastern U.S. With huge projects like Keystone XL and Northern Pass on the table, our nation’s energy future is at stake, and it has never been more important – for our communities, economy, natural environment, and climate – to get it right.

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.

Litigation Update: CLF blasts PSNH efforts to avoid accountability for Clean Air Act violations at Merrimack Station

Nov 15, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Merrimack Station in Bow, NH

In more than 50 pages of filings last Thursday, CLF responded to a pair of motions by Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) asking for dismissal of our Clean Air Act citizen suit now pending in federal district court in New Hampshire. That same day, CLF’s lawsuit got a major boost when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a brief of its own, as a friend of the court, to identify the legal errors in PSNH’s key argument.

One PSNH motion challenged CLF’s right to sue PSNH to protect the environmental and public health from Merrimack Station’s illegal pollution. The other motion claimed that PSNH didn’t do anything wrong when it renovated Merrimack Station because EPA regulations allow it to make changes without permits.

In our briefs, CLF vigorously objects to both motions. You can download our briefs in PDF format here and here; our full set of filings, including attachments, is here (7MB .zip file).

PSNH’s illegal projects will increase Merrimack Station’s emissions, which will harm the health and well-being of CLF members. Under federal law, this harm means that CLF has the right to sue PSNH to hold it accountable for violations of the Clean Air Act. Because PSNH failed to get permits for its projects, PSNH violated the law. Those permits would require PSNH to install more stringent and protective pollution controls that all new plants must include, reducing Merrimack Station’s emissions of a wide range of pollutants, beyond the reductions that Merrimack Station’s expensive new scrubber (which is limited to reducing sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions) can achieve.

Incredibly, PSNH’s argument that it is exempt from permitting requirements is entirely based on EPA regulations that do not apply in New Hampshire. It’s not a close call; PSNH’s brief arguing for our lawsuit to be dismissed gets the rules 100% wrong, an astonishing error for a sophisticated company like PSNH, New Hampshire’s biggest utility.

EPA’s filing puts the final nail in the coffin for PSNH’s flawed legal argument. In a 25-page brief, EPA shows how, even if the rules PSNH is citing were the right ones, PSNH got those rules wrong too. As the author of the regulations PSNH cites, EPA explains that those regulations also would require PSNH to obtain permits before undertaking projects that will increase emissions.

It could not be clearer that PSNH’s recent renovation strategy at Merrimack Station — “build first, see what happens later” — violates the Clean Air Act. CLF will continue its fight to hold PSNH accountable for its violations as this case proceeds in the months to come.

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