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DES nominee grilled over Northern Pass in public hearing

  • Power lines stretch north from Mary Lee's Northfield home into Salisbury, June 16, 2011. A band of woods obstructs the view from her house to the power lines that run north to south. Lee fears she will lose that buffer if the Northern Pass is built. (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Friday, June 16, 2017

The nominee to lead the state’s environmental services department wouldn’t say where he stands on Northern Pass, despite aggressive questioning from Executive Councilors on Thursday.

“I think the issue is balance,” said Robert Scott, nominated recently by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. “I haven’t heard all the testimony to understand are the negatives outweighed by the positives.”

Republican councilors voiced their frustration with his response. “I need some answers,” said Councilor David Wheeler of Milford.

Northern Pass, a controversial transmission line proposed to run more than 190 miles through the state, took a spotlight in the two-hour public hearing. The environmental services commissioner has a spot on the state committee in charge of approving major energy projects.

Scott already sits on the Site Evaluation Commission as one of three state Public Utilities Commissioners. But Scott has recused himself from the Northern Pass evaluation process and said he would continue to sit out if confirmed as DES commissioner.

Still, his statements didn’t quell opponents’ concerns.

“I am terrified that if Mr. Scott gets in as DES commissioner he will be a puppet to facilitate this project,” said Dolly McPhaul, a vocal critic of Northern Pass project and former state senate candidate from Sugar Hill.

Sununu has been a vocal proponent of the project, which is projected to funnel more than 1,000 megawatts of Canadian hydropower into the region. Critics argue the towers and power lines will mar the state’s natural landscape.

Sununu has had trouble finding a commissioner to lead the department that oversees water quality, air pollution and waste. He withdrew his first pick in April after councilors said Bedford businessman Peter Kujawski lacked experience in environmental services.

The same can’t be said of Scott. Before joining the PUC, he spent nearly two decades working at the department of environmental services where he led the Air Resources Division until 2012. Scott said if confirmed he would prioritize transparency, predictability in permitting and “protecting the environment and public health” in a way that protects the economy too.

“Bob is always trying to get the best deal, what’s best for New Hampshire,” state Republican Rep. Michael Harrington told councilors.

While two Democrats on the council said they were inclined to support Scott’s nomination, the two Republicans who attended the hearing were less certain.

Councilor Joe Kenney is “totally undecided,” but told Scott during the hearing his vote rests on the issue of Northern Pass. “Obviously I didn’t like the answers on the Northern Pass question, he was totally uncommitted to lay out his position on Northern Pass when the governor has been way out there supporting it,” said Kenney, who represents the North Country.

Scott recused himself from the Northern Pass siting process in 2015.

“Given my past contacts in representing the state of New Hampshire in New England regional energy discussions with the other New England states concerning electric transmission projects such as Northern Pass, I have elected to recuse myself from participation in these dockets as an adjudicative commissioner,” he wrote at the time, according to the Union Leader. “I make this decision in an abundance of caution to avoid even the appearance of having pre-judged these critical issues.”

Councilor Chris Pappas of Manchester said Scott meets the qualifications. “He’s respected in the environmental community, he has good connections with people in the business community he has a solid technical background,” he said. “I think he’s qualified.”

The longtime commissioner of Environmental Services, Tom Burack of Hopkinton, announced he would be stepping down last November. Burack had led the department for 10 years and oversaw the state’s entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state pact that aims to reduce carbon emissions. Since his departure, Assistant Commissioner Clark Freise has filled in as acting department leader.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)