July 15, 2011

Going Back to the Right Drawing Board for Northern Pass

The following Op-Ed ran in the  Concord Monitor by Tom Irwin, V.P. and New Hampshire Director, Conservation Law Foundation; Susan Arnold, V.P. for Conservation, Appalachian Mountain Club;
Michael King, Executive Director, North Country Council, Inc. and Will Abbott, V.P. for Policy & Land Management, Society for the Protection of NH Forests

When you don’t have a plan, it shows.

The would‐be developer of the Northern Pass project and its partner PSNH are scrambling to find a path of least resistance for transmission lines from the Canadian border to Groveton. Whatever “Plan B” emerges, there is no doubt that it will incite a brand‐new wave of opposition and will do nothing to address the concerns of residents along the proposed route south to Deerfield.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is frozen in place without an environmental contractor and has delayed the environmental review of the project indefinitely, saying the process will start again at a time of Northern Pass’s choosing.

By contrast, Québec Premier Jean Charest is on a world tour seeking investors in “Plan Nord,” an $80 billion development plan for Québec’s far north. More than ten years in the making, the plan builds on Hydro‐Québec’s own strategic plan to increase exports and includes thousands of megawatts of damming projects that Hydro‐Québec intends to sell into New England and the northeastern U.S.

Quebec clearly has a plan for exporting power, promising decades of profits for the provincial treasury. Yet our federal energy agency is sitting back, waiting for a Hydro‐Québec‐backed developer to call the shots.

The delays mean that DOE still has a golden opportunity to change course – to sideline the proponents’ whims and start acting proactively and in the public interest.

In April, our organizations filed a motion with DOE asking for a regional energy study to assess the nature and extent of New England’s need for Canadian hydropower and to develop an appropriate plan to bring that power into the region. Aside from Northern Pass, there are other international transmission proposals, including a project to bury transmission lines down the Hudson River in New York. It only makes sense to consider, at the same time, all the common issues – such as the fossil‐fuel power that imports should displace, the impacts on local renewable projects, and all the alternative routes and transmission technologies ‐that should be understood in order to inform DOE’s review of Northern Pass and other future projects.

We believe a regional, holistic study is essential to determine if there are other, better ways to facilitate (or avoid) imports, with as many economic benefits and as little community and environmental damage as possible. The analysis should address much more than the least opposed route in Coös County. Investments in energy efficiency, reconfiguring the existing line through Vermont and New Hampshire, burial of lines in transportation rights of way, and adding capacity to the Hudson River project are among the alternatives that should be on the table. If any options have superior benefits and fewer impacts, it would be hard for DOE to certify that the proposed Northern Pass project is in the “public interest” and should be granted a permit to cross the international border.

Within a week of our motion for this regional assessment, Northern Pass’s PR machine flatly dismissed our request as a “delay tactic,” without once explaining why a regional study shouldn’t happen or mentioning that Northern Pass’s own blunders have been responsible for all delays to date. DOE itself has yet to respond, other than to state that it would not respond to individual motions during the permitting process.

The environmental review for Northern Pass hasn’t even gotten off the ground. DOE could and should prepare a comprehensive regional study now. Quebec has a plan; we should have one, too.

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