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North Country
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: As Regulatory Process Picks Up So Does The PR War

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Chris Jensen for NHPR
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The approval process for Northern Pass is ramping up and so is the battle for public support.

Last month Northern Pass and its parent company Eversource Energy donated $3 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to be used on conservation projects in New Hampshire.

But there’s some controversy over it now and NHPR’s Chris Jensen has been looking into the donation and why some conservation groups are reluctant to accept the money.  He joins us now.

Peter Biello: Hi Chris, remind us what this donation is.

Chris: Well, Northern Pass and its parent Eversource Energy donated $3 million. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation said it was the largest donation it has received from any corporation in New England. So, that’s pretty impressive.

At the time a top Eversource official said the donation shows Northern Pass, can “co-exist – in fact has to coexist – with a natural and healthy environment.”

The deal is called Partners for New Hampshire’s Fish and Wildlife, but the term "partners" definitely angered some conservation groups.

And Northern Pass’ news release can be read to describe New Hampshire Fish and Game, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and Trout Unlimited as “partners” with Northern Pass.

They said they are not partners with Northern Pass.

The news release also reported that the Connecticut River Watershed Council “will use a $180,000 grant” for a conservation project.

But only $18,000 of that money is coming from Eversource and Northern Pass, the foundation confirmed.

The watershed council, incidentally, says it will take Northern Pass funds for its projects and that will not change its position that the entire Northern Pass transmission line should be buried.

But the overall plan is that the foundation will distribute the money to conservation groups. So, Eversource wouldn’t be deciding who got money.

Peter: What was the reaction to that?

Chris: Rather predictably Northern Pass opponents said it was a public-relations ploy and the utility was trying to buy off conservation groups.

They also noted the timing. Within the next month or so the U.S. Department of Energy will be releasing a draft Environmental Impact Statement looking at Northern Pass.  And shortly after that Northern Pass is expected to seek approval by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee.

But Northern Pass said they gave the money to the foundation to distribute so there can’t be a conflict of interest and they were just trying to do something good.

Peter: So far some money has been distributed including about $50,000 to improve habitat for animals including cottontails.

But we know some groups have concerns. Who are they?

Chris: Trout Unlimited says enough of its members oppose Northern Pass that it will not seek any of the funds donated to the foundation.

Glenn Normandeau, who heads up New Hampshire Fish and Game, said there hasn’t yet been any discussion in his department about seeking those funds.

And, he added, given the controversy over the money coming from Northern Pass “we have no intention of reaching into the shark tank anytime soon.”

He also said the possibility of that money being available would have no influence on his department’s evaluation of the Northern Pass project which would be based on a scientific analysis.

Meanwhile, an official with the state Audubon Society said the staff would recommend not seeking any of the funds although the board hasn’t made a formal decision.

It’s not clear how other conservation groups may feel but a spokesman for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation said no group has yet said it will not seek funds.

Peter: So, what does Northern Pass say about this?

Chris: Northern Pass and Eversource spokesman Martin Murray contends opponents of the project are trying to bully groups not to take the money.

He also said the $3 million donation was an effort to benefit conservation in the state and it is frustrating and disappointing to see opposition to something that would help conservation efforts.

He also said there was no intention to mislead anyone.

He said the groups described as “partners” are partners in conservation efforts being funded through National Fish and Wildlife.

He said there was no intention to portray them as allied with Northern Pass.

He also said there was no effort to mislead anyone about the $180,000 donation.

Host: So, is there a bigger issue here?

Chris: I think so. After years of delay the regulatory process for Northern Pass is finally moving ahead and so the public-relations fight is picking up.

Earlier this month Northern Pass gave money to help expand cell coverage in the North Country. Then shortly after that $200,000 from Northern Pass was made available to businesses in Coos to help create or maintain jobs.

On the other side opponents released a video urging the lines be buried in Concord basically because they would look just awful.

And, Northern Pass fired back saying that video was doctored in at least one place for dramatic effect which turns out to be a valid complaint.

Peter: So, it looks like we can expect more of this as the year goes on.

Chris:  Yes, absolutely.  And we recently got a glimpse of some of the behind the scenes PR workings of Northern Pass.  A hired consultant named Seth Cargiuolo posted a report on the project on his website.  He was working for Saint Consulting.  Saint Consulting describes itself as “winning controversial local, state and federal land use campaigns since 1983.”

The document has since been removed.  But in it Cargiuolo talked about how his team at Saint helped drum up social media support to blunt attacks from opponents of Northern Pass as well as generating letters of support to state legislators and federal officials.

That included using what the report called "a customized, rotating-content support letter generator to put pressure on state legislators on multiple issues."

Neither Cargiuolo nor officials at Saint Consulting could be reached for comment.

An official at Northern Pass said the company had worked with Saint Consulting on social media out reach but he declined to answer any additional questions.

Peter:  Well, as you said this is just the beginning as the approval process keeps unfolding. Thanks, Chris.

Chris:  You’re welcome.

Host:  That’s Chris Jensen, he’s one of NHPR’s North Country reporters.  

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