Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Get 2 limited-edition podcast mugs when you make a sustaining gift of $8 or more per month today!
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 Helped Pick Key Consultant for DOE, Conservation Law Foundation Asserts

The Conservation Law Foundation says the U.S. Department of Energy made a serious mistake by again allowing Northern Pass to help pick the consultants responsible for the crucial environmental impact statement.

“The concern is that the integrity of the federal review is at great risk,” Christophe Courchesne, a lawyer at the foundation, said Wednesday.

The DOE did not respond to the issue raised by the foundation.

Instead, late on Wednesday, Niketa Kumar, a spokeswoman for DOE, send an e-mail saying "The Department of Energy takes very seriously its responsibility to conduct a thorough and open review of Northern Pass’s permit application" and it will take all comments seriously.

Michael Skelton, a spokesman for Northern Pass, said the foundation was simply trying to stop the project and the arrival of clean energy by delaying the federal process.

“They are entitled to their opinion.  We are focused on doing the work necessary to file an amended application with the Department of Energy by the end of this year,” Skelton said.

It is the Department of Energy’s job to decide whether the Northern Pass project should be allowed to bring hydro-electric power in from Canada.

A key part of that is an environmental impact statement to be prepared by a consultant hired by the Department of Energy.

Courchesne says by using a Freedom-of-Information request the foundation obtained a series of emails between the federal agency and a lawyer for Northern Pass.

He says they show “Northern Pass handpicked the new team that is going to be drafting the environmental impact statement.”

One email is dated July 2011 and it addressed to DOE officials. It is from Northern Pass lawyer Mary Anne Sullivan, who previously was the top lawyer at the Department of Energy.  It says:

“Northern Pass, after a thorough search, would like to recommend to DOE a team of SE Group, Ecology & Environment Inc., and Lucy Swartz to serve as the NEPA contractor for the Northern Pass Transmission Project. Taken together, we believe the team has strong, highly relevant expertise, and we believe they will work very effectively together as a team.”

Courchesne says federal regulations are clear in stating that the contractor must be chosen “solely by the lead agency.”

“What it did here was outsource its obligation to Northern Pass and it appears that DOE has very little involvement in the process and ultimately rubber stamped the consultant that Northern Pass selected,” Courchesne said.

Northern Pass also suggested the language for the contract.

There are three consultants.

One is SE Group, which has an office in Burlington, Vermont.

The second is Ecology and Environment, which has its headquarters in Lancaster, New York.

The third is Lucinda Low Swartz of Kensington, Maryland.

Northern Pass lawyer Sullivan assured the DOE that the firms had not done any business with the utility so there was no conflict-of-interest.

But Courchesne contends that’s not true because the companies owe their jobs to Northern Pass.

And, that undermines public confidence in the process, he says.

In a letter to the DOE he argues the agency should replace the current consultants with new firms chosen in the proper way.

Northern Pass lawyer Sullivan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If the DOE removes the three firms and hires someone else it would be the third time new consultants have been hired for the job.

Originally Northern Pass recommended Normandeau  Associates of Bedford.

DOE hired them.

But later it turned out Normandeau was doing other work for the utility company.

After assertions of a conflict-of-interest were raised Normandeau withdrew early in 2011.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.