Zombie Talking Point on Northern Pass Climate Benefits Rises Again

Christophe Courchesne

Northern Pass Zombie

(photo credit: flickr/macwagen)

With last month’s Northern Pass route announcement and last week’s filing of an amended application for a Presidential Permit, Northeast Utilities and PSNH have repackaged and repeated the very same arguments for the project that have filled air waves and op-ed pages throughout New England for nearly three years. We keep hearing the same sales pitch—cleaner air, a more reliable grid, economic prosperity, low-cost energy—with the same numbers: 5 million fewer tons of carbon pollution, 1,200 jobs, and millions in energy savings and tax revenue.

From a distance, the claims look real enough; on closer inspection, it becomes clear that they were born in a long-gone energy landscape and are aggressively deceptive. And they live not only in Northern Pass’s marketing materials, but in the disseminations of Northern Pass’s cadre of PSNH-aligned supporters, such as this recent op-ed by an avowed clean energy opponent who worked for a group that calls climate change “pseudo-science.”

CLF and others have been examining and debunking these talking points for a long time. But like zombies, they keep coming back. And there is perhaps no uglier member of Northern Pass’s living dead than the claim that Northern Pass will reduce carbon pollution by up to 5 million tons per year.

The number is an estimate of the carbon dioxide emissions from the typically natural gas power that Northern Pass imports would displace in our regional energy mix, based on a 2010 market modeling report by an economic consultant hired by Northern Pass—a report that, despite numerous references to it in the project’s amended application, no longer appears on Northern Pass’s website but is available here (25 MB PDF). The estimate assumes four things:

Assumption No. 1: Northern Pass power would not result in any carbon dioxide emissions. (See pp. 5 and 34 of the report.)

This is unequivocally wrong. Scientific research conducted by Hydro-Québec scientists and published in peer reviewed journals says just the opposite. The science confirms that, by flooding vast areas of boreal forests, new large-scale hydropower facilities have net greenhouse gas emissions (from the decomposition of flooded biological material, the elimination of forest carbon “sinks,” and other sources) that may initially exceed those of natural gas power plants and that, despite declining and producing fewer net greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas over time, may continue at meaningful levels even over the long term. Northern Pass’s continued “zero-carbon” assumption is dishonest and cynical, especially given the fact that Northeast Utilities has submitted summaries of the very same research findings on hydropower emissions to regulatory authorities and has steadfastly refused to change its marketing materials despite CLF’s effort to point out the error.

Assumption No. 2: Over the next ten years, New England’s energy market will look like government forecasts predicted in 2010. (See pp. 23-24 of the report.)

Northern Pass’s 5 million ton estimate is highly dependent on outdated modeling of an energy market that no longer exists. Its consultant report was prepared three years ago—in 2010—with U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts of energy commodity prices, including natural gas prices approaching $7 per million cubic feet by 2022. The forecast price of natural gas is crucial to predicting how Northern Pass power will affect New England’s energy market because that price helps determine the market price of electricity in New England. Since 2010, domestic natural gas supplies have driven down prices, and the EIA’s forecast has changed dramatically, now estimating that average prices won’t crack $5 until 2026. (The spot natural gas price today is well below $4; the 2010 projection for 2013 was $6.13.) While CLF and many other stakeholders are deeply concerned about proposed long-term investments in natural gas (and their climate impacts), there is no denying that the fuel’s role in the region’s energy market is different than what was predicted in 2010.

In addition to lower power prices in New England, the report failed to account for the availability of an additional path for Hydro-Québec to export its power—the Champlain Hudson Power Express—which won approval from New York officials earlier this year and is in the process of obtaining federal permits.

All this means is that Hydro-Québec will likely sell less power into New England than previously estimated, replacing (by Northern Pass’s own logic) less natural gas power and its associated pollution.

Assumption No. 3: Hydro-Québec will continue to build more hydropower facilities, including the Romaine River dams that are under construction, which will facilitate additional exports to the United States. (See pp. 2 and 28 of the report)

The report on which Northern Pass’ claimed 5 million ton greenhouse gas reduction is based explains that “[i]n reality, the additional transmission capacity provided by [Northern Pass] could lead to additional development of resources to support exports from Québec….” In fact, the 5 million ton estimate is only that high because it includes emissions reductions (which are inflated for the reasons identified above) that will happen if Hydro-Québec develops new hydropower projects and as a result has more surplus energy available than it does today. (If not, the report itself predicts emissions reductions of only about half the 5 million ton estimate.) The assumption suggests that Hydro-Québec will rely on a succession of new projects –the Eastmain-Rupert River complex just completed, the Romaine River complex under construction, and the Magpie and Petit-Mécatina complexes that are in Hydro-Quebec’s strategic plan—to feed exports to New England.

With this context, the 5 million ton estimate is even more unrealistic because the short-term greenhouse gas emissions of new projects are worse than older facilities. The assumption of new projects in Canada is noteworthy as well because, while consistent with sworn testimony by a Northeast Utilities executive about the source of Northern Pass power, it is directly at odds with Northern Pass’s repeated refrain that Northern Pass power will merely be excess “system power” from Hydro-Québec and won’t require the construction of new hydropower facilities. (See p. 6, footnote 1 of the amended application.)

Assumption No. 4: There won’t be any greenhouse gas emissions associated with the energy that Québec’s other neighbors may need when Northern Pass comes online and more Hydro-Québec power flows to New England.

Where would Hydro-Québec sell its energy without Northern Pass, and what power sources other than Hydro-Québec power will those places use if Northern Pass is built? Whether Northern Pass has any climate benefit depends on the answers. The report’s estimate of increased Hydro-Québec power sales into New England predicts that New England will get power that would otherwise flow to New York and Ontario. (See p. 27 of the report.) In both markets, natural gas is the marginal fuel, meaning that it both sets energy prices and tends to be the power source that makes up for unavailable sources. In other words, it would be reasonable to assume that natural gas power plants in New York and Ontario will run more if Northern Pass is built and shifts Hydro-Quebec’s exports to New England. Northern Pass’s 5 million ton greenhouse gas reduction estimate wrongly assumes that other regions’ replacement power won’t have any carbon emissions—in fact, it doesn’t address this critical issue at all. Because climate change is a global phenomenon, what we have here looks like a shell game: the supposed climate benefits of Northern Pass from displacing natural gas power in New England could very well be cancelled out by power plants in other regions burning natural gas (or other fossil fuels).

With all these assumptions in the open, Northern Pass’s 5 million ton estimate is, in a word, indefensible. Northern Pass’s strategy of endlessly repeating this 5 million ton fabrication—to investors, to permitting agencies, and to the public— signals that Northern Pass version 2.0 will be pursued with exactly the same adversarial, greenwashing tactics that accompanied version 1.0. Worse, it reflects apparent contempt on the part of Northeast Utilities and PSNH for well-informed dialogue regarding a key supposed benefit of their project.

And we certainly need a rational, fact-based dialogue as the region embarks on what CLF hopes will be a productive and rigorous process for considering the merits of and best options for importing more large-scale hydropower from Canada. A clear-eyed regional approach requires real, well-grounded numbers addressing pollution and economic impacts. (The now-revived permitting process for Northern Pass needs them, too.)

Zombies need not apply.

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One Response to “Zombie Talking Point on Northern Pass Climate Benefits Rises Again”

  1. The Northern Pass is a $1.4 billion project to deliver 1200 MW of CO2-free power to southern New England. That $1.2/watt of capacity is a good chunk of the cost of even today’s CO-2 free nuclear power plants, running about $5/watt in Georgia. Why not have southern New England build their own nuclear power plants? I’m working on liquid fluoride thorium reactor plants that should cost $2/watt and generate energy cheaper than coal.

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