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What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

Northern Pass Application Likely Lengthiest in State's History

Eversource New Hampshire
A photo simulation made by Eversource to show what the power line would look like if constructed.

If printed on 8 x 11 paper, and laid end to end, a single copy of the Northern Pass’ application to the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, would stretch nearly 4 miles. With 51 appendices spread across 35 volumes, each application takes up more than 20,000 pages.

When they were laying out the boxes of applications that needed to be delivered “it looked like we were moving,” says Lauren Collins, Northern Pass spokeswoman. 

“We had to group everything around a giant factory room to keep it organized and make sure we had checked off all the boxes.”

It’s hard to say for certain, but the application to build the 192-mile Northern Pass transmission line is likely the lengthiest that the state has ever had to review.

The Seabrook Nuclear Station – the project that led to the creation of the SEC – or the Phase I and Phase II power line which stretches from Monroe New Hampshire all the way to Massachusetts might have rivaled the Northern Pass in terms of complexity. But as the approval process has matured the paperwork required has multiplied.

And now towns, activists, and state agencies are quietly poring over those files.

Towns were given the option of taking it as a hard-copy or digital, and most opted for the e-version.

Sue Croteau, the office manager for the board of selectmen in the North Country town of Stark says she was handed four thumb-drives, all of them full.

“I certainly don’t have time in my day to go through four thumb drives and read everything in there,” she says with a chuckle.

But there are those who will do a lot of reading.

The Department of Environmental Services, the Department of Transportation and Public Utilities Commission each have a permits to review, legal opinions to solicit, and due diligence to be done. DES got the lion’s share of the paper-work: permits for disturbances to wetlands, for large-scale earth-work, for work along shore lands.

“I’ve tried calling three separate staff people who I knew were probably going to be working on this project, and no-one answered the phone, so I would imagine they’re probably reading this thing 24/7,” says Nik Coates with the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions.

Coates was trying to find out how his members should get involved in wetlands permits. His group has not taken a position on the project, though many of its members have signaled their opposition. “How DES is going to respond to this? I imagine they’re going to be brewing a lot of pots of coffee over the next couple of weeks,” he says.

The coffee budgets might have to be bumped up at the offices of the environmental groups that have decided to oppose the project as well.

Over at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Jack Savage says many of the staff, as well as the attorneys they’ve hired, are going over this application word by word.

“You approach this like any very large project… like eating an elephant – as the saying goes – one bite at a time,” Savage says.

His group and others are looking for chinks in the armor of the case in favor of the project that Eversource has built. “I think that there are going to be key sections that stand out. Things that they maintain are true that one stakeholder or another makes a very strong argument are not true or potential mistakes or that kind of thing,” he predicts.

If you were wondering if anyone has found anything of the sort already, you’d be disappointed. Remember, it’s over 20,000 pages long, and it became public on Monday. And what’s more, opposition groups will likely keep their legal strategy close to the vest so-as to not give the developer time to respond.

As for the developer, Eversource’s work is also far from done.

“I sort of have likened it to sending a child to college, you get them prepped and you send them off and ready to go, but there’s a lot of work to be done over the ensuing years,” says spokeswoman Collins.

After all, Northern Pass has more public open-houses to organize, and then a year’s worth of testimony and hearings to prepare for. All of which will now play out very much in the public eye.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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