A Message to the Energy Industry: The Demise of Northern Pass 1.0

Apr 26, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Earlier this week, I brought a message from New Hampshire to a gathering of major players in the Northeast’s energy industry in lower Manhattan, the Platt’s Northeast Energy Markets Conference.

wall street

(photo credit: flickr/Mathew Knott)

Remember Northern Pass, that novel Northeast Utilities transmission project that would import 1,200 megawatts of large-scale hydropower from Hydro-Québec?

The project, as it was conceived and pitched to the region and the industry, Northern Pass version 1.0 if you will, is dead.

I ran through the key financial elements of the original proposal, what I called the Northern Pass gambit:

  • $1.1 billion to build a new transmission line, funded wholly by Hydro-Québec.
  • A generous “return on equity,” or guaranteed profit on project costs, of 12.56% for project developer Northeast Utilities, paid by Hydro-Québec.
  • Easy and inexpensive siting approvals for the line, which would be located solely in New Hampshire, mostly in corridors controlled by Northeast Utilities subsidiary Public Service of New Hampshire, the state’s largest and most powerful electric utility.
  • Ample profits that would cover all Northern Pass costs and much more for Hydro-Québec, which would sell its hydropower in New England’s lucrative wholesale electric market, where energy prices were, in 2008 and 2009 when Northern Pass was conceived, orders of magnitude higher than Hydro-Quebec’s costs of generating power.
  • Unlike New England-based renewable projects, no public or ratepayer subsidies.

These elements looked good to investors on paper. But they have, one by one, fallen apart, and they no longer add up. I took the audience through the Northern Pass reality:

  • Years of a stalled siting process, as Northeast Utilities tries to purchase a new route for the northernmost 40 miles of the project, where PSNH has no transmission corridor, with repeated missed deadlines for announcing the new route and restarting the federal permitting process.
  • Increasing costs – an estimated additional $100 million in project costs already, even without accounting for any new route, mitigation commitments, or any underground component.
  • Growing doubt (even more pronounced than a year ago) that Hydro-Québec can recover Northern Pass development costs and its hydropower costs (which will only increase as costly new dam projects continue in northern Québec) through energy exports, given that wholesale energy prices in New England are now much lower.
  • Opposition by the vast majority of communities affected by the project, 33 at last count, local chambers of commerce, political leaders, and a diverse, well-organized grassroots movement of residents.
  • No support from any New England environmental group.
  • Mounting risk to NU’s lucrative return on equity, with the underlying deal expiring in 2014, and any renewal subject to federal regulators’ recently more skeptical view of such incentives.

And finally, I gave the eulogy for the key financial element of Northern Pass 1.0 – the one that attracted so much interest in regional energy circles, was the project’s key distinguishing feature from New England renewable energy projects, and continues to reside within the project’s discredited and misleading media campaign: the promise that the project would not require any subsidies.

In the last several months, as CLF predicted, Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Québec, and their allies have launched a major initiative to secure out-of-market subsidies of one form or the other for Canadian hydropower.  These efforts are now raging in the legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island and are simmering in other New England states. CLF is deeply engaged in protecting our state Renewable Portfolio Standard laws from this incursion and in turning back any long-term deals that will supply Canadian hydropower to these states at above-market prices or in a way that threatens renewable deployment in New England.

To us and to others, the false urgency associated with these proposals seems transparently calculated to advance a “Northern Pass 2.0,” just as Northern Pass 1.0 falls apart.

What would Northern Pass 2.0 look like? On the ground, whatever the “new route” New Hampshire continues to wait for, it will almost certainly look the same as Northern Pass 1.0, suffering from many of the same failings. But there will be some key differences, as the project’s underpinnings shift to accommodate a new economic reality. It will rely on public and/or ratepayer subsidies that will mean that New England will pay an above-market premium for the power or will provide an out-of-market gift of long-term energy price certainty to Hydro-Québec, in part to finance the associated transmission. In addition, many in New Hampshire’s North Country believe that the project will need to be sited on public land that is legally off-limits to circumvent the strong, ongoing efforts of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to secure blocking conservation easements – in effect, another public subsidy for the project that will face overwhelming pushback in New Hampshire. (Clearly, Northern Pass’s dogged legislative fight to secure an ability to use eminent domain for the project, which it lost in resounding fashion in 2012, was only a preview of coming tactics.)  

As CLF has consistently said, there may be appropriate alternatives to Northern Pass that strengthen New England’s access to Canadian hydropower resources, but only if those alternatives are pursued through well-informed, fair, and transparent public processes, provide meaningful community and ratepayer benefits, displace our dirtiest energy resources, and verifiably result in carbon and other emissions reductions. It does not appear that the emerging Northern Pass 2.0 – buoyed by a set of special deals and no discernible improvements – would do anything to advance these basic common sense principles, which should guide the region’s transition to a resource mix that will power New England’s clean energy future.

With few signs that Northern Pass’s sponsors have learned lessons from their missteps so far, Northern Pass 2.0 looks to have an even tougher path in New Hampshire than the dead end road that Northern Pass 1.0 has traveled. This was a message from the Granite State that the world of energy industry insiders and analysts needed to hear.

Northeast Utilities Still Can’t Reveal “New Route” for Northern Pass

Apr 2, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Northeast Utilities (NU) tells investors and the public that it is will announce a new northernmost route for its Northern Pass transmission project by a certain date. The date arrives. A “project update” appears on the website of NU subsidiary and project developer Northern Pass Transmission LLC, saying that it isn’t ready to announce the new route just yet.

What's behind the curtain, Northern Pass? (photo credit: flickr/Nick Sherman)

What’s behind the curtain, Northern Pass? (photo credit: flickr/Nick Sherman)

Sound familiar? It happened at the end of 2012. As reported in the Caledonian Record, it happened again last week, a mere month after NU said – in writing to investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission – that it would announce a new route by the end of March. This is the fourth self-imposed deadline that Northern Pass’s developer has failed to meet since last summer. You’d be forgiven if you started asking yourself whether Northern Pass’s route is the transmission equivalent of vaporware.

For whatever reason, NU has repeatedly misled the public and its investors about the Northern Pass project, and not just the project’s schedule.

Securities regulators should take note of this pattern of behavior and insist on honesty and transparency from NU, just as Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley did when NU recently balked at revealing its CEO’s 2012 compensation package. As we’ve said before, investors, the public, and our energy future depend on accurate information and forthright disclosures from energy companies. That’s not what we’re getting from NU on Northern Pass.

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

Jan 3, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not working.

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

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

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

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

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

The Latest on Northern Pass: A Year-End Roundup

Dec 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

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

The “New Route” Drama

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

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

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

NU’s False Statements Get Noticed

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

A Broken Permitting Process

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

An Underground Alternative Emerges

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

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

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

*             *             *

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

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.

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.

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