Site Evaluation Committee Casts Unanimous Vote Against Northern Pass Project

Feb 1, 2018
Originally published on February 2, 2018 2:15 pm

The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee has voted unanimously to deny a permit to Eversource's controversial Northern Pass project.

On Thursday, the panel was in its third day of deliberations on whether to let the 192-mile transmission line proposal move forward.

They had informally agreed Wednesday morning that they did not feel Eversource, the utility developing the project, had proven the power line would not unduly affect the orderly development of the region.

That was one of four criteria the project had to meet in order to get a permit. The committee had only discussed one other criterion so far - the project's financial and technical stability, which they'd agreed was sound.

On Wednesday afternoon, according to attendees, Public Utilities Commission representative Kathryn Birchard moved she and her fellow SEC members vote to deny the project. She argued it couldn't overcome their concern that it would have an outsized impact on land uses and local planning along its route through the North Country and central New Hampshire.

The commission's initial vote on Bailey's motion was 5 to 2 in favor of denial. They then voted again and were unanimous, denying Northern Pass a permit to begin construction this spring as planned.

The SEC's surprise early decision comes after years of fiery debate about Northern Pass in New Hampshire and beyond, and will likely set off a lengthy appeals process.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Eversource promised to appeal the SEC's decision, saying they were "shocked and outraged" by the vote.

"The process failed to comply with New Hampshire law and did not reflect the substantial evidence on the record," the statement said. "Clearly, the SEC process is broken and this decision sends a chilling message to any energy project contemplating development in the Granite State."

After the SEC issues a formal, written decision, Eversource will have 30 days to request a re-hearing. If the SEC declines to re-hear arguments on the project, Eversource would get another 30 days to appeal their case to the state Supreme Court.

SURPRISE ON ALL SIDES

Supporters of Northern Pass and of large-scale energy development in general were disappointed by the initial vote.

Business and Industry Association president Jim Roche says in a statement the decision is bad news for New Hampshire and New England's long-term energy sustainability.

"As a result of today’s decision, New Hampshire businesses – and manufacturers in particular – will begin peeling away from our state in favor of opportunities in regions where electricity is more affordable and reliable. If that doesn’t 'unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region,' we don’t know what does," Roche says, referring to the grounds on which the SEC denied Northern Pass. 

Workers who would have helped build the project were also unhappy.

The New Hampshire local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers says in a statement, "After years of collecting evidence and data, in the end it appears that the SEC made their decision base [sic] on special interest opinions and not the facts."

Meanwhile, longtime opponents of Northern Pass say they'll fight any appeals that come. 

"I'd like to think that they understand finally that New Hampshire does not want this project," says Jack Savage, a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. 

He says they're pleased the SEC felt the project hinged so clearly on the development issue. 

"They understood that a project like this was contrary to the character and orderly development of our small towns, north and south," he said. "They understood that the impact was unreasonable not just up north in the middle of the woods, but also down south along existing right of ways."

In a statement, the anti-Northern Pass nonprofit Protect the Granite State said called the SEC decision "proof that grassroots voices matter." 

Eversource staff cleared out quickly after the vote came down, but some who've spent years protesting the project lingered to celebrate. Helmut Koch of Concord was among them.

"There was a lot of diligence, so I'm pleased with the outcome," he said. "The process works."

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

New Hampshire's process also creates uncertainty for Massachusetts.

Last week, regulators in the Commonwealth handed Eversource the sole rights to a long-term contract for purchase of hydropower from Northern Pass. The law that precipitated that decision requires the selected project to be online by December 2020. 

But the contract is still being negotiated, and in a statement, a spokesman for the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs says it "remains conditional on necessary siting approvals." 

The Massachusetts attorney general's office had promised to review the process through which Northern Pass was chosen - a process that included Eversource, as well as competing bidder National Grid and others. 

Now, the Massachusetts AG's office is expressing concerns about having Northern Pass up and running by the end of 2020. 

"The vote from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee raises serious questions about this timetable," said spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis in a statement. "At a minimum, it appears today’s development requires reevaluation of the selection of Northern Pass." 

HydroQuebec, the energy giant that would have powered Northern Pass, seemed less worried. They've touted the Massachusetts deal as the biggest in their history, but they appear open to falling back on other projects they submitted for the long-term contract, if Massachusetts ends up choosing an alternative.

"We submitted Plan A, but we also have a Plan B and C," HQ spokesperson Serge Abergel told the CBC. "So if this one weren't to work, we also have other projects that will work, and they're very competitive."

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