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North Country

Commission: Putting Utility Lines Along State Rights-Of-Way Feasible

forrester and rappaport deliberation.JPG
Chris Jensen

A group of lawmakers and state agency representatives known as the 361 commission say it’s feasible to put utility lines along state rights-of-way, including some interstates.

Still unclear, however, is whether burying the lines would be possible or more expensive.

The findings are part of a final report put out by the commission Friday.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature, in response to concerns over the proposed Northern Pass project, created the 361 commission to study utilities and rights-of-way issues.

The commission held its final meeting in Concord Friday morning.

NHPR reporter Chris Jensen talks with All Things Considered host Brady Carlson about the commission's final meeting.  

Q: This commission’s work was prompted by the Northern Pass hydro-electric project, but not meant to study it specifically?

A: That’s right—the legislature created  the commission because of questions over the Northern Pass hydro-electric project, which wants to run high-power electric lines the length of the state.

But throughout the commission’s hearings, members often noted that their work was about all new utility projects and this wasn’t just about Northern Pass.

Q: Tomorrow is the deadline for the final report. So, what happened at the final hearing today?

A: The commission concluded that it is feasible to put utility lines along state rights-of-way, including some interstates. And they can be buried. It wasn’t clear how much money the state would get.

The commission also didn’t fully answer the question of whether it is practical.

They did hear testimony that burying utility lines is becoming more common around the country and burying the lines might “increase the reliability and security.”

Q: Was there any conclusion about whether burying lines is more expensive?

There was a lot of talk about it but no conclusion.

The commission was chaired by Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith and it was pretty clear that she was disappointed that Hydro-Quebec officials had declined to meet with the commission and answer questions about costs.

So, one of the few things on which the commission agreed was to suggest that the governor create a task force to continue to explore these issues.

Q: What were the issues on which the commission didn’t agree?

A: A lot. And they were important issues. The key here is to understand the make-up of the commission, which was set by Senate Bill 361. There were four legislators.

Then, there were seven officials from various state agencies such as the Public Utilities Commission and Department of Environmental Services.

And on some key issues the agency officials didn’t agree with the legislators.

For example Forrester, Rep. Larry Rappaport and Rep. Paul Simard all wanted a one-year moratorium on any new electric elective projects.

Elective means the project isn’t required to make the power grid more reliable. It is a project designed to make money.

Northern Pass is an elective project. The idea was that a year would allow the state time to develop an energy policy, but that moratorium was voted down by the agency officials.

Then, there was a vote on recommending a state energy policy be developed.

The proposal said the state needs “a more robust regulatory review process of energy projects” that should take into account impacts including the economy and landscapes.

This was also supported by the legislators, though, once again, the agency officials voted it down.

The fourth legislator on the commission, Rep. Jacqueline Cali-Pitts of Portsmouth, also voted against it.

Another losing proposal involved urging legislation that would require elective projects – such as Northern Pass – to also provide a plan for burying the lines.

Q: How did those defeats go over with the legislators?

A: Rappaport, Simard and Forrester were not amused.

At one point Simard said voters don’t feel like anyone in the state government is watching out for their interests when it comes to projects like Northern Pass and wind farms.

The agency representatives said the reason they couldn’t vote on some of the proposals was that they fell outside the scope of the commission’s work.  They said their agencies might be considering various projects so it wasn’t a good idea to have stated a position.

Forrester disagreed with that.

Q: So, what does it all mean?  Did the commission accomplish anything?

A: Well, for Northern Pass opponents it means the idea of requiring lines to be located on state rights-of-way is moving along but not very quickly.

But the fact is that the legislature will decide how to handle these issues.

The commission’s report is just a report.

And, there are several bills already proposed by Forrester and Rappaport that would deal with some of these issues.

But Forrester also says she thinks those who favor Northern pass can now point to issues such as the proposed year long moratorium and say look, the 361 commission rejected that.