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Regulators Wrestle With Questions As Northern Pass Talks Continue

Annie Ropeik

The state Site Evaluation Committee waded deeper into questions of Northern Pass's impact on the North Country on Wednesday.

Fewer protesters and even fewer supporters were there to listen than on the first day, as members continued their final deliberations on permitting the transmission line.

In discussions of how Northern Pass will affect land-use plans along its route, members seemed to grow more conflicted about how to define the tipping point where the project might become too impactful.

Bill Oldenburg represents the state Department of Transportation on the SEC, and he wrestled with that during talk of how power line construction will affect utility easements – corridors set aside for power lines – versus more undeveloped areas:

"To me, it’s – there’s an easement there, there might be wood poles today, there might be steel poles tomorrow. I didn’t see it as such a big thing – now you’re making me think about it,” he said. “But my concern was the North Country, where there isn’t an easement, where it’s a new line. And is that in line with the land use?”

The committee is also struggling to decide how to factor in news last week that Northern Pass is the sole winner of a long-term renewable energy contract with Massachusetts.

New Hampshire has to approve the transmission line before that deal is finalized. But the SEC is worried the decision might change the costs and benefits they have to consider in permitting it.

Committee member Christopher Way, of the state Department of Business and Economic Affairs, asked the blunt question: “Is there a downside to New Hampshire as a result of the [Massachusetts contract] being awarded to the project?

“Well, I think that’s what we’re here to figure out,” replied Public Utilities Commission representative Kathryn Bailey with a laugh.

But they didn’t figure it out yet, beyond agreeing that the Massachusetts decision at least confirms Northern Pass would move forward if approved.

The SEC will meet a few times a week through Feb. 23, when they’ll decide if Northern Pass should get a building permit.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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