My Turn: Northern Pass is really just a real estate deal
Since PSNH officials announced the route they intend to file for approval of Northern Pass, they have inundated the public with their justifications for this project as a smoke screen to disguise the issue that they just don’t want discussed.
Since their announcement, we’ve heard about the need for diversity of power generation, seen fancy charts suggesting an over-reliance on certain sources of power, listened to monologues about reliability and clean, cheap energy. We’ve also read about PSNH’s concern for the people and communities with whom they have worked so hard in partnership throughout this process.
All these are issues we can agree with or debate, but they are a distraction posed to focus our minds on the power rather than on the delivery of it. The opposition to Northern Pass is not really about whether the power is green or not, or whether corporations have the right to pursue legitimate business ventures that provide benefits and profits for themselves. Although the issue on which there should be no debate is PSNH’s lack of willingness and concern to work with communities. Its statements are a clear misrepresentation given officials’ total absence of communication with towns and landowners throughout the process. Nevertheless, PSNH is keeping these issues at the forefront of the public discussion to divert attention away from the real issue: land.
Let’s be explicit – for PSNH, Northern Pass is really a real estate deal, not an energy project that benefits New Hampshire. Hydro-Quebec will sell the power. Northeast Utilities will deliver the power to its Connecticut customers while PSNH provides the land route through New Hampshire.
Fergus Cullen identified this issue in a recent column in the New Hampshire Union Leader, noting PSNH’s intent to monetize an existing right of way as a toll road to southern New England. The issue isn’t about power – it’s about rent.
PSNH stands to collect huge annual windfalls in rental income from Hydro-Quebec by cheaply placing the towers on rights of way granted to it by landowners decades ago for public need, not corporate profit. The company continually justifies its proposed route as being “on its own rights of way,” but it should be recognized that these rights of way exist on private land – land that fellow citizens own and pay taxes on. These citizens and their neighbors recognize the immense harm this project will do to their land and their savings, to say nothing for their communities and local economies. This is why every community along the route has voted, often unanimously, against the project, and why PSNH refused to consider the viable alternative of burial along highways that would protect these communities.
PSNH refuses to address this issue because it realizes that it is a public relations nightmare: excess profit at the expense of so many in New Hampshire. Any question of burial is quickly refuted as “too expensive.” Perhaps that is the case through the national forest and up over the less accessible White Mountains – in other words, along the existing right of way over private land. But the media won’t seem to press the question of burial along highways despite evidence that it is feasible from state Sen. Jeanie Forrester’s commission, practices in other states and Hydro-Quebec’s own literature. PSNH only hopes and prays that this issue goes unaddressed.
Those who suggest this is purely a NIMBY issue fail to see the economic consequences that Northern Pass will inflict on so many communities. That is why many more chamber of commerce chapters oppose the project. Scenic views have a monetary and economic value, too, which is why New Hampshire is one of a few states that imposes a view tax. Yet its economic value for the future cannot be understated for the hundreds of businesses that rely on tourism and the opportunity for broadening our economic base on the back of the region’s natural resources. If we populate our state with outdated industrial infrastructure, all that opportunity will be lost. Yet the opportunity still exists for Northern Pass to be built in a non-intrusive manner: burial.
This is of little concern for PSNH, its Connecticut overseers and Wall Street owners. It is the annual rental stream that they seek while affected communities across the state will slowly see their own revenue dwindle as tax abatements accelerate, businesses fold, and Northern Pass depreciates their assets while challenging their taxable value, as PSNH has already been doing this year.
Ultimately, this proposal will be before New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee, whose members should ask serious questions about whether this proposal, or a viable alternative, better serves the state. Northern Pass’s proposal above ground and across private land is nothing short of forcing New Hampshire landowners and communities to subsidize PSNH and its Connecticut overseers in their private venture. This is not an energy deal for New Hampshire. It is a real estate deal for PSNH, and the Site Evaluation Committee needs to make that distinction.
(Jamie White is founder and principal of a Massachusetts firm committed to developing economic sustainability through design as a means of revitalizing small communities. He owns property in Sugar Hill.)