DOE and NPT Don’t Get It: the Public Deserves an Unbiased Review of Northern Pass

Christophe Courchesne

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 (https://www.clf.org/northern-pass), and take a look at our prior Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop.

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