New Hampshire is on its way to making important reforms to its process for reviewing proposals for energy projects. Last week, the New Hampshire Senate gave its approval in a unanimous voice vote to Senate Bill 245, a bill that significantly amends the law governing the state’s Site Evaluation Committee (SEC), the multi-agency body that reviews applications to locate major energy facilities, like pipelines, electric transmission lines, wind farms, and other power plants, in the Granite State. The bill now goes to the House.
The Senate action follows prior legislative efforts to reform the SEC in 2012 and 2013. These efforts culminated in Senate Bill 99, which commissioned a comprehensive review of the state’s siting process and standards. In the fall of 2013, the state’s Office of Energy and Planning (OEP)—the agency tasked with the review under the bill—undertook a study of the SEC and convened an intensive statewide stakeholder process that collected feedback from residents, developers, industry, non-governmental organizations, and state agencies. (Along with a diverse group of stakeholders, I was honored to serve on a “coordinating committee” that provided advice and feedback to OEP as the work progressed.)
During the process, a remarkable ad hoc group comprised of CLF, the state’s environmental community, and the companies developing wind projects in New Hampshire came together to offer a consensus set of recommended changes, including reducing the number of SEC members from the current 15 to a more manageable number and establishing professional staff and funding for the body.
The ad hoc group’s suggested improvements were consistent with the results of the broader stakeholder process. As OEP Director Meredith Hatfield pointed out in her cover letter, the final Senate Bill 99 report (PDF) identified a number of reforms with broad support, including making the SEC process more efficient and less cumbersome, increasing opportunities for public and community engagement before and during the process, and strengthening the SEC’s authority to ensure that proposed projects benefit the public.
Following the review, lead bill sponsor Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) and bill co-sponsors Senator Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton), Senator Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth), and Senator Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) led an effort that engaged a wide range of stakeholders, including CLF, to craft legislative language that would deliver the reforms identified during the Senate Bill 99 review. As always, the devil is in the details, and in the words of Senator Woodburn, getting to a final bill was “very, very difficult.” But the Senate work ultimately provides a package of meaningful changes to the SEC and its process:
- The bill reduces the size of SEC to 9 members, including 7 state agency officials and two public members-at-large appointed by the Governor.
- The bill strengthens public participation by requiring project information sessions in host communities—both before and after a formal application for a project is submitted.
- The bill provides initial funding for a professional staff and calls for a permanent funding plan to be considered during the next biennial state budget.
- Under the bill, all projects must be found to “serve the public interest.” This is a crucial reform to ensure that the SEC looks rigorously at the public benefits of a project in the context of any adverse impacts on the state’s resources.
CLF strongly supported the bill in concert with our environmental community partners at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Nature Conservancy; you can read our joint testimony here. As with all major legislation, the final Senate bill reflects a number of compromises and leaves room for future tweaks, but we fervently agree with what Senator Bradley said in the Senate press release on the bill:
This legislation is the result of months of conversation and compromise among environmental protection organizations, industry, regulators, and elected officials. Together, we were able to put together a well thought-out bill that creates a more responsive, more efficient Site Evaluation Committee that can protect both our environment and our state’s energy infrastructure well into the future.
With so many challenges ahead of us in the transformation of our energy sector, CLF commends the New Hampshire Senate for finding common ground and strengthening the process through which the state makes critical decisions regarding its energy future. CLF looks forward to working with stakeholders and House members to strengthen the bill as it works its way through the larger chamber.