Law foundation: New energy investments in region lacking transparency
A multistate planning process that could lead to billions of dollars in new energy investments has been conducted largely in secret with undue influence from companies that stand to profit, according to a document review by the Conservation Law Foundation.
The environmental advocacy group is lobbying for more transparency from the six New England governors behind a plan to bring a new transmission project and more natural gas to the region.
Through a multistate right-to-know request, the foundation received thousands of documents related to the process. Tuesday, the group released 48 of them, along with a 10-page memo outlining its findings.
“It’s just deeply concerning all around,” said Christophe Courchesne, a staff attorney with the foundation in New Hampshire. “We are dealing with an unprecedented intervention in the marketplace by the governors to invest lots of ratepayer money in big infrastructure that we may not need.”
The governors’ proposal is looking for new transmission projects and increased natural gas pipeline capacity to fuel the region’s energy needs and address its challenges. Over the winter, energy prices spiked in part due to a lack of natural gas infrastructure.
Representatives of the states would select the new projects through a request-for-proposal bidding process. The winning company could recover its costs through a tariff on the region’s electric ratepayers.
New Hampshire’s Northern Pass project could be a contender.
“Based on what New England’s governors have called for in announcing their infrastructure initiative, Northern Pass would be an ideal fit for beginning to address the region’s precarious energy situation,” PSNH spokeswoman Lauren Collins told the Union Leader earlier this week. “Since the criteria for this potential proposal is not final, we can’t speculate on what it might specifically mean.”
Northeast Utilities, Northern Pass’s parent company, declined to comment for this story on the foundation’s document memo.
Courchesne said the emails that the foundation reviewed demonstrate officials “show a certain level of contempt for public involvement,” while at the same time they ask industry for input.
He pointed to one email, dated August 2013, that was written by Ben D’Antonio of New England States Committee on Electricity – the organization implementing the governors’ initiative – to Thomas Welch, chairman of Maine Public Utilities Commission.
D’Antonio writes: “Also – to clarify – I am less worried about the Canadians’ strategy and more suggesting that deal strategy be formulated behind closed doors. The court of public opinion can be fickle and recalcitrant.”
Courchesne said what is missing from the documents that the foundation reviewed was a “robust discussion” of possible alternatives, such as investments in energy efficiency plans or smaller-scale projects.
Based on the documents, Courchesne said New Hampshire is arguably the state that is most skeptical of the plan. On numerous occasions, New Hampshire officials said states shouldn’t be responsible for the costs of transmission if the states don’t receive meaningful benefits, Courchesne said. “That being said, (New Hampshire) has certainly been involved throughout the process for all of the major decisions,” he said.
“New Hampshire has been very clear that we will only move forward with proposals that reduce costs to ratepayers,” said Gov. Maggie Hassan’s spokesman, William Hinkle. And the RFP process doesn’t commit New Hampshire to move forward with any particular project, all of which would be subject to public review, he said.
From its right-to-know request, the foundation received substantial documents from both Maine and New Hampshire, no documents from Massachusetts, few from the other states and none from NESCOE, Courchesne said.
The foundation received 1,700 of the 3,200 documents it requested from New Hampshire’s PUC. Courchesne said he expects to receive a detailed index by July of the documents that the foundation didn’t receive from the commission. The foundation is considering legal action to obtain the remainder of the documents, he said, and in the meantime, the group will continue to review the documents it already has.
The foundation picked the 48 it released Tuesday because the briefing “accurately characterizes the debate, and the documents illustrate what we have seen,” Courchesne said. The group may release more documents in the future.
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)