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My Turn: Senate should reject Northern Pass fear-mongering

Last modified: 2/7/2014 4:37:01 PM
The New Hampshire House’s recent approval of HB 569, in part requiring electric transmission line developers to demonstrate that burial is not feasible on non-reliability projects, has prompted the usual flurry of pronouncements from Northern Pass that the state risks becoming 
anti-business. Northern Pass spokesman Mike Skelton was quick to note that the legislation “will discourage developers from pursuing energy transmission projects in the Granite State,” while Lauren Collins argued the House should “not stand in the way with a bill that goes against good public policy.”

Public relations officials at Northern Pass and their sponsor, PSNH, have spent the better part of the past year fear-mongering through advertising campaigns, Twitter postings and blogs to sell their project to the public. They argue that the potential energy shortage that will develop if this project is denied, along with the loss of potential jobs and tax revenue, will ultimately lead to the stigma that New Hampshire is not a state that welcomes business.

This fear tactic is only a diversion from the real issue, which may ultimately cost PSNH and Northern Pass their reputations with customers, partners and investors – if it hasn’t already. The real issue is design. Their intransigence over using current technology and acceptable routes impedes their ability to move forward with a feasible project that would win public approval.

This intransigence is in stark contrast to projects under way in Vermont and New York where plans to bury transmission lines are moving forward through the permitting process with little or no opposition. Cries that burial is too expensive ring hollow when private developers backed by the Blackstone Group, a company that understands the bottom line, are behind these projects. These buried line projects are so lucrative that the developers are establishing an environmental trust fund for the state of $117 million as a sweetener.

Maine also has a buried line project on the table, and the business climate is alive and healthy where developers are working with these states and their communities to find an acceptable balance. All of these deliver the jobs, tax revenue and renewable energy that Northern Pass claims are vital.

PSNH and Northern Pass, on the other hand, have put their project at risk, squandering much goodwill across the state and prompting many customers to flee or become cynical of their intentions. They still do not have site control over a portion of their route, and approval through the iconic White Mountains, if granted, will be contentious. North Country chambers of commerce and environmental groups across the state oppose it both on economic and environmental grounds. The project is likely to end up in litigation for years.

Hydro-Quebec, who endorses burial as an option and is a partner in the New York and Vermont projects, is quietly watching and comparing how its New Hampshire partners proceed with the approval process. Meanwhile, Northern Pass has spent millions on lobbyists, useless land purchases, slick marketing and staged road shows that have, for the most part, alienated the public further. Shareholders and Hydro-Quebec should be asking the hard questions as to what the ultimate cost will be in both dollars and reputation once this whole process has been played out.

Despite what Northern Pass has argued, new legislation in the form of HB 569 provides a clearer vision and guide as to the proper balance between transmission development and the public good. In fact, one could argue that Northern Pass’s refusal to produce an acceptable design, unlike other developers in our neighboring states, has prompted needed legislation. Such legislation does not deter investment as evidenced by the private projects moving forward outside New Hampshire, and our state senators should take note as they begin deliberating on this bill.

The historian David McCullough once noted that “we must redirect the river of money to restoration of community.” He went on to say that “our future is a design issue – it should be the result of intent rather than circumstance.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan has echoed this, writing that developing new sources of energy “does not mean just accepting what Northern Pass has offered.”

Northern Pass’s refusal to sincerely work with communities to find viable alternatives that preserve community has contributed to the sense of distrust and cynicism. This is bad business. If they are really concerned about the health of the business climate in New Hampshire, they need only look to the methods of their competition in our neighboring states as an example of progress and good business practice.

(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.)


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