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