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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.

New Rules For Site Evaluation Committee Dismay Energy Companies, But Will The SEC Back Off?

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Chris Jensen for NHPR
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Over the next year, the state’s Site Evaluation Committee will consider whether to okay the controversial Northern Pass project.  Eventually it is also likely to weigh in on at least one wind farm and the Kinder Morgan pipeline.  That puts a spotlight on the committee-- made up of seven state officials and two members of the public.

But behind the scenes the SEC is undergoing big changes.  Legislators want more protections for property owners, more requirements on utilities and more public input.  Now the SEC is proposing some new regulations.

Overall those recommendations have pleasantly surprised environmentalists and some legislators. But they’ve also upset some energy companies.

This Wednesday, the SEC will hold a public meeting to go over the issue of whether it has gone too far in drafting its new rules.

North Country reporter Chris Jensen talks with Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley.

Why are these changes important and what’s at stake for the state?

Once these rules are formally adopted they will determine for decades how the state handles utility projects. Utilities want a simple, streamlined process. Others – including many legislators - argue specific requirements are needed to protect the state’s residents and the environment.

Why have some of these proposals emerged as sticking points?

Well, the legislative committee overseeing this is called the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.  It’s concerned that in some cases the SEC’s proposed rules are going beyond what the legislature intended when it ordered the SEC to reorganize. That’s a concern shared by some utility companies.  And so the committee is questioning the changes.

One of the issues is the requirement that the SEC consider whether a project will have an “unreasonable adverse effect.”  What does that mean and what else has been troublesome?

The unreasonable adverse effect requirement means the committee must weigh a project’s impact in areas including scenery, air quality, wildlife, historical sites, public health and safety.

Another controversial, proposed rule looks at whether a project “will serve the public interest.” Basically that means the committee would weigh the cost and benefit of changes to energy prices, property values, tax revenue, employment opportunities, a whole host of factors.

Whether those will be changed is one of the things the SEC is expected to consider on Wednesday.

What’s been the reaction to these?

Well the state senators and representatives who were sponsors of SB 245 - which led to the reorganization - are pretty happy.

They say the SEC has done a remarkable job with an incredibly complex issue, dealing with intense lobbying from energy companies and demands of citizens and environmental groups.

Many opponents of Northern Pass are happy too, as well as groups such as the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

One exception is that they would still like a regulation requiring the utility to have the legal agreements to use the land on which it will build before the SEC begins its deliberations. If that was adopted it could pose a big problem for Northern Pass which does not have legal control over all the land in its proposed route. Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray says it has not been proven that Northern Pass lacks legal control over the route. However, it does not have permission from The White Mountain National Forest to bury the line alongside roads going through the forest. A spokeswoman from The White Mountain National Forest has said it must still grant permission despite the new burial plan.

But utilities, including Northern Pass’ parent company, Eversource, see some of these requirements as unfair and burdensome.

And it’s that “public interest” provision that’s a real point of contention.  Generally the utilities says such a requirement goes beyond the intent of the legislature. They say the legislature didn’t want a laundry list of things to be considered. Instead, they say, it should just say in the “public interest.” That apparently means the SEC would decide what “public interest” means on a case-by-case basis.

But sponsors of the bill that started the reorganization – including Democrat Rep. Sue Ford of Easton and Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith – say a detailed list is exactly what they intended.

Can you give us another example where the SEC’s language has become controversial?

Sure.  One is a requirement to examine the extent to which construction and operation of the proposed project will be consistent with “local plans and policies.”

This is a hot issue because it says the project won’t go against what local zoning or planning boards want.

There are a lot of towns that strongly support that. They say the SEC shouldn’t be able to overrule them.

But Eversource is arguing that requirement is illegal. It interprets a 1980 New Hampshire Supreme Court decision – involving its ancestor, Public Service of New Hampshire - as saying when the legislature created the SEC it intended the SEC’s decisions would overrule local planning.

Back in April, at a hearing, that preemption concept was supported by Tom Burack, who heads up the Department of Environmental Services and is vice chairman of the SEC. He said he couldn’t support any provision that would “be counter to what the Legislature intended.”

What happens next?

Well, at the meeting Wednesday in Concord the SEC will discuss the concerns raised by the Joint Legislative Committee and whether to change their proposals.

That’s worried some of the people who were so pleased with what the SEC is proposing.  They are urging the SEC to stick to its guns.

If the SEC won’t change its rules, and push comes to shove, the SEC would be required to prove it has the authority.

For copies of the proposed regulations go here and here.

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