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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 Interveners Settling in for Long Slog

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Sam Evans-Brown
/
NHPR
Groups of interveners caucus on Tuesday to choose a spokesperson who will attempt to represent all of the concerns of the "bundle".

More than one hundred groups and individuals were granted the official status of “interveners” before the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, which reviews proposed energy projects. These interveners have the right to file motions on the Northern Pass project, a $1.6 billion proposal that would connect hydroelectric dams in Quebec to the New England electricity markets.

They include property owners and towns up and down the route of the proposed route of the power line, environmental groups like the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, a variety of business groups and unions.

Another 29 – like the cities of Manchester and Nashua, and groups representing New England’s ratepayers and power plant owners – were told they didn’t make the cut (but should feel free to submit written comments).

Over the course of the next year, and possibly beyond, these interveners will publicly pick apart the Northern Pass transmission line before the SEC. That committee faces a tricky balancing act: how to ensure that everyone affected by the Northern Pass project gets a say, while still sticking to some kind of a reasonable schedule.

Disgruntled Bundles

Monday and Tuesday, those who made the cut packed into a ballroom in Concord. The proceeding had to be moved here because the unprecedented number of interveners couldn’t fit into a hearing room at the Public Utilities Commission.

And many of them aren’t happy.

“It’s a recipe for chaos to bundle different groups and different areas with that many people and expect them to come out with a unified voice,” says Chris Pastoriza of Easton.

The interveners have been put into groups that supposedly have similar concerns, with the aim of streamlining the public comment process. For instance, the town of Easton has been grouped with towns all the way from Sugar Hill down to Plymouth.

Pastoriza, who opposes the transmission line, believes a group this big won’t be able to agree on everything, which means the concerns of some towns will get silenced.

“I think the SEC is not used to having the public have the voice that they’ve had in this hearing, and they’re not used to opening up their private party to the people that are affected by the project,” she says.

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult experience for everybody,” says Peter Roth, a lawyer with Attorney General’s office whose job is to represent the concerns of the public.

He says while this bundling is fairly standard practice, it’s unusual for the bundles to be so big.

“Here we have in one instance a group that consists of all the abutters between Ashland and Deerfield,” he says, “That’s a lot of towns, a lot of people.”

For its part, Northern Pass believes the SEC got the groups basically right.

“We are also concerned that at this point we are at the outer bounds of the number of parties that a proceeding like this could accommodate, and still really be handled in an orderly and efficient manner,” says Barry Needleman, one of the project’s attorneys, “And so to the extent that this process were to result in a significant number of additional parties being created, that would be of great concern to us.”

Hurry Up Offense Versus Running Out the Clock

Moving the process along is the big reason for bundling all of the interveners into groups.

State law says this whole evaluation should be finished by December, though Roth points out there’s a provision that allows the SEC to extend the process if necessary. “If this case fit within the statutory schedule, it would actually be one of the first cases to ever have done so,” he says.

Northern Pass wants this all to be wrapped up by Christmas, so they can start building next year. Roth’s office has proposed finishing somewhere around the middle of 2017. The project’s most vocal opponent, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, has proposed going until November of 2017.

For the opponents: the longer the better – more delays mean more costs for Northern Pass in consultants and attorneys, and they hope eventually the developers will give up. And if Tuesday’s hearing was any indication – with many present objecting to the large groups they were bundled into – all of these voices clamoring to be heard could mean a long slog.

Kate Hartnett of Deerfield, points out that sometimes multiple bodies from individual towns want to have their own say.

“The interests of the planning board, are different from the conservation commission are different than the select board,” she explains, “Just internally in our one little town of 4,000 people.”

This is not the first complaint opponents have had about this process.

They objected a tour of the proposed route of the project, saying the SEC didn’t stop at some of the spots where the power lines will be most visible.

They objected to the way recent public hearings were carried out, and said moderators did a poor job of paraphrasing questions and didn’t follow up when officials from Eversource – the company behind Northern Pass -- didn’t answer questions directly.

To the project’s spokesman, Martin Murray, it’s no surprise the process isn’t satisfying everyone. “I think what the SEC is trying to do is paying attention to the laws and the rules that are set out to move this process along, and doing the best they can to include everyone,” he says.

And so, this is how it stands: opponents are doing what they can to run out the clock, and Northern Pass is pushing to hurry things up… and in the middle, a committee of seven government appointees who in the coming weeks will set a timeline.

**An earlier version of this post said that there were 161 applicants who had been granted intervener status in the Northern Pass proceeding. That was the number who applied to be interveners, the number granted that status is lower**

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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