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Northern Pass official under fire over assessment of project’s support

Several environmental groups say a Northern Pass official grossly misrepresented the project’s standing in New Hampshire at a financial investor conference last week by claiming the groups and Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan support the project. The official says his comments are being twisted to hurt the project.

Tom May, chief executive officer of Northeast Utilities, which is behind the $1.1 billion Northern Pass project, told conference attendees that the proposed hydro-power project would bring more environmental benefits to New England than any project before it. He also said that his company believes Hassan supports the project when she has publicly said she has some concerns about it.

“We believe New Hampshire will recognize the value of this project to them,” May said.

But most controversial was this statement: “It’s a pretty big environmental impact,” May said, according to a recording of his remarks available on the internet. “And this project has the support of every environmental group in New England, basically.”

That’s untrue – if May was talking about Northern Pass, as environmental activists say he was.

But Martin Murray, a Northern Pass spokesman, said Tuesday that May was not referring to Northern Pass in that last statement. He said May was instead referring to the offshore Cape Wind energy project in Massachusetts. Murray said Northern Pass officials are aware of objections raised by environmental groups.

The proposed Northern Pass, introduced in 2010, is a partnership between Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec. The project would bring hydro-power through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid along 140 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.

North Country opposition

The project has been delayed by opposition, especially from North Country landowners and environmental groups. In response to that opposition, the Legislature this year passed a law prohibiting a private project like Northern Pass from taking land by eminent domain.

From Goveton south, the Northern Pass lines would run in the existing power line clearings maintained by PSNH. Project officials have struggled to build the northern 40 miles of the route, which will require new clearings. Several miles of transmission lines would run through the White Mountain National Forest.

Project officials are buying land now with plans to unveil the full route by the end of the year.

In his conference remarks last week, May did refer to Cape Wind but only once. And he had returned to discussing Northern Pass before he mentioned the support of environmental groups. He was speaking at the annual Edison Electric Institute Financial Conference in Arizona.

“I think you have to consider Mr. May’s comments, at best, irresponsibly misinformed,” said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which is trying to raise $2.5 million to block the project. The group has raised more than $1 million from 1,200 donors in 178 New Hampshire cities and towns, Savage said.

The society is going to use that money raised to put conservation easements on two parcels along Northern Pass’s likely path. The group hopes to put conservation easements on three additional parcels. Savage said the environmental objections have been no secret to May.

“You can go to Northern Pass’s own project journal and see references to us, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Conservation Law Foundation as three environmental groups that clearly do not support Northern Pass as proposed,” he said.

Susan Arnold, AMC’s vice president for conservation, said she didn’t know of a single New England environmental group that does support Northern Pass. “The Appalachian Mountain Club does not support the Northern Pass project as proposed and we have been very public about our concerns,” Arnold said in an email. “We are mystified as to where Mr. May gets his information.”

Christophe Courchesne, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire, disputed May’s statements in a lengthy blog post on the foundation’s website, clf.org. He also posted a link to a recording of May’s comments.

“It was extremely disappointing that Northeast Utilities continues to take the approach of repeating false and misleading information,” Courchesne said in an interview Tuesday. “And this time, it’s not even colorably accurate.”

The Monitor listened to the recordings of May’s remarks several times Tuesday.

He began by saying Northern Pass was making good progress. He said the project’s timing is “critical” because ISO-New England, which oversees the supply and demand of the New England energy market, has been looking for more energy diversity in the market.

Northern Pass would introduce 1,200 megawatts of hydropower to the New England market, which currently relies heavily on natural gas, nuclear energy and oil. May said ISO-New England has “been a big proponent of this project.”

An ‘elective’ project

Marcia Blomberg, a spokeswoman for ISO-New England, said Tuesday that the organization has not taken a position on the Northern Pass. ISO-New England has said previously that Northern Pass is an “elective” energy project that is not needed to “keep the lights on” in New England.

Asked about May’s statement, Murray said May was saying only that ISO-New England is encouraging a diversity of energy sources and that hydro-power would do that.

May next said that Northern Pass would lower energy prices in New England.

“No other project that anyone has considered in our region has anywhere near the economic or environmental impact that this project has,” he said. May said “people are suggesting” that the project could lower energy prices in the region by $200 to $300 million annually.

“The environmental value, there is no project that is anywhere near or a series of projects that have anywhere near this impact,” May said. “Many of you have heard about the Cape Wind project. This has six to seven times more environmental value in it.”

May then said Northern Pass would lower carbon fuel emissions in the region to a degree that the drop would equal taking 900,000 cars off the road annually. Then May made the comment that environmental groups have criticized.

“So, it’s a pretty big environmental impact,” May said, “and this project has the support of every environmental group in New England, basically.”

Jobs, tax revenue

May spoke next about the 1,200 jobs and the $25 million in property taxes Northern Pass is predicted to bring New Hampshire. He said he’d been in Quebec two weeks earlier meeting with his Canadian partners.

“I believe that we’re both very anxious to get going on this project now that the elections are over and now that there is a new governor in New Hampshire that we believe is supportive of the project, and we can start to bring our case before the people of New Hampshire once again.”

Tuesday, Murray disputed that version of May’s remarks. He said May couched the remark by saying “if there is a governor in New Hamsphire that is supportive.” The Monitor did not hear the comment that way.

Unwavering position

And during her campaign, Hassan said the project would need the support of local communities to get her support. She also said she would prefer to see the transmission lines buried, something Northern Pass officials have said is too expensive and impractical to consider.

Hassan’s spokesman said Hassan’s position has not changed.

“As a state senator, she worked to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private gain, and she opposes the use of eminent domain for this project,” said Marc Goldberg in an email. (Northern Pass officials have said they don’t intend to pursue eminent domain.) “Gov.-Elect Hassan believes that we must protect the scenic views of the North Country, which are vital to our tourism industry and to protecting our quality of life. As governor, she will ensure that, in accordance with the law, New Hampshire undertakes a rigorous review process of any proposal and provide significant opportunities for public voices to be heard.”

Goldberg also said Hassan hopes that the next proposal will address the concerns of the communities involved.

“She believes that burying the lines would be a more appropriate approach, and also supports looking into home-grown energy sources, such as the new biomass plant under construction in Berlin,” said Goldberg.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

The live recording of Mr. May's remarks gives absolutely zero support to Mr. Murray's attempt to re-spin reality. A "thank you" to Annmarie Timmins for saying (as directly as the press can) that Murray is just making it up. Northeast Utilities (NU) has a habit of materially misleading the public and the securities markets about the prospects and timetable for Northern Pass. They've now set themselves up for a do-or-die new route announcement by the end of this year. If the route announcement doesn't happen or is missing key pieces of property, then NU's promise will be false (once again). If NU's stock goes down because of the Northern Pass route disappointment and NU shareholders suffer a loss, will there be a securities fraud claim against NU? Stay tuned...

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