Northern Pass debate turns to the pros

Last modified: 5/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
The Northern Pass will bring jobs and tax revenue to New Hampshire and provide much-needed renewable energy to New England as a whole. The Northern Pass will cut a 180-mile-long scar through New Hampshire's precious forests and will provide little if any long-term benefits for the state.

Those were the dueling positions presented yesterday by Gary Long, president and chief operating officer of Public Service of New Hampshire, and Will Abbott, vice president for policy and land management at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

They spoke at a forum organized by the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce on the Northern Pass, which would bring 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Canada to the New England power grid on 180 miles of transmission lines from the international border to Deerfield. A $250 million converter station would be built in Franklin.

The $1.1 billion project, unveiled last October, has sparked loud opposition from many in the North Country as it goes through federal and state reviews. It's a joint venture of Hydro-Quebec and Hartford, Conn.-based Northeast Utilities, PSNH's parent company. (PSNH spokesman Martin Murray is on the chamber's board of directors.)

The forest society is among those opposing the project, and Abbott spoke at yesterday's "Power and People" luncheon about what he described as the threat posed by the transmission lines to the North Country's woods. PSNH says the Northern Pass's preferred route means 140 miles would be built on existing rights-of-way, with 40 miles on new rights-of-way.

"Erecting 180 miles of towers higher than most mature tree species in New Hampshire is not our idea of wise use of this resource," Abbott said. "If built, these towers will forever desecrate these scenic views along the entire Pittsburg-to-Deerfield route."

Abbott said the project's costs in terms of damage to land value and natural resources must be balanced with its benefits - PSNH says $25 million in tax revenue will be created for the state and local communities, as well as construction jobs the utility estimated at 1,330 to 1,680 in 2013 and 2014 and 900 to 1,135 jobs in 2015.

"If, at the end of this analysis, the primary economic benefits for the state of New Hampshire are three years of short-term jobs and $25 million in annual property tax payments, we think this is a bad deal," Abbott said.

And, he said, public opinion should be taken into account. Abbott said the reaction in the 31 communities directly affected by the project has been "very visceral, very negative" and the project, in its current form, should be shelved.

"At some point, the public interest should be what the public says it is," Abbott said.

Long took the opposite tack in his remarks and a question-and-answer session that followed, describing the project as having long-term environmental benefits for the region.

New England increasingly relies on natural gas, a fossil fuel, for its electricity, he said. Bringing in hydroelectric power will, in the long run, help reduce carbon emissions, he said.

And even if, as Abbott said, New Hampshire currently produces enough power for its own purposes, Long said that ignores long-term needs and the fact that the state is part of a regional grid.

"New England is one grid. There is no way power stops at the border. Power flows throughout New England. It's managed as a grid. . . . If New England has a problem, New Hampshire has a problem. That's the way the grid works," Long said.

The economic benefits for the state are significant as well, he said: The jobs created would be a shot in the arm for the state's construction industry, and $25 million a year in new tax revenue would be welcomed by state and local governments facing cutbacks.

"Some of these things I do not trivialize the way others do," Long said.

The economic and environmental benefits are "indisputable," Long said, while distaste over the visual impact of transmission towers "is an opinion."

And while using eminent domain to obtain land for the route is "a very last resort," Long said, he opposes efforts at the State House to forestall that option.

"It's a policy thing. It's what public policy is about. . . . If you want to do a public good and if you want to benefit a million people, you can't have one stop a benefit for a million people," he said. "That's what government's about."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)




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