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N.H. delegation: More transparency needed in Northern Pass federal permitting process

Last modified: 8/27/2014 1:04:52 AM
New Hampshire’s congressional delegation is again calling for more transparency as the Northern Pass project goes through the federal permitting process.

In a letter they sent to the assistant energy secretary Aug. 18., the state’s two U.S. senators and representatives ask for “transparency and cooperation” during the Department of Energy’s review of the electric transmission project.

The lawmakers also encourage the department to study “two key” alternative routes for the transmission line – including options that cross the border with Canada at a location other than Pittsburg – that they say are left out of the department’s review.

The Northern Pass project needs both state and federal approval, including a Presidential Permit issued by the DOE.

The letter, signed by U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen and Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, is the most recent of several that the delegation has written to the department calling for transparency during the permit process. The action shows how the state’s elected officials – who won’t directly vote on the project permits – can affect the process.

Currently, the $1.4 billion Northern Pass project would send Canadian hydropower to New England through a 187-mile transmission line that runs from the border crossing at Pittsburg, south to Deerfield. Eight miles of the proposed transmission line would be buried between Pittsburg and Stewartstown, and the remaining 179 would run through Public Service of New Hampshire’s existing or new rights of way.

The DOE is conducting studies for an environmental impact statement – known as an EIS – that will help the department determine whether to grant Northern Pass a permit. For that, the department studies the environmental effects of the proposed project and also looks at several possible alternatives. Officials expect a draft EIS to be released by the end of the year.

After several requests from the state’s congressional delegation, the department publicly released a list in May of more than 20 possible alternatives that it’s considering in its review. They ranged from a complete burial of the transmission line along existing highways and roads to an energy conservation plan that would make the project unnecessary.

Many groups, including Northern Pass, praised the department’s move to publicize the alternatives report.

Many project opponents said that the list showed the department was seriously considering further burial of the transmission line. But they also criticized the list because none of the report’s alternatives proposed moving the border-crossing from Pittsburg to another location.

“It’s one of the biggest flaws,” said Will Abbott of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “By limiting the border crossing to just that 300 feet . . . in Pittsburg, you knock out looking at any other logical transportation corridors that have a much more direct route.”

He and other representatives from the Conservation Law Foundation, Appalachian Mountain Club and Nature Conservancy outlined that point in an eight-page letter they sent the department in June.

The delegation’s letter brings up that same point. They ask the department to consider a second international crossing other than Pittsburg and also ask the department to study an alternative route that follows an existing highway corridor.

“Those two alternatives were not included in the addendum despite the large number of public comments . . . requesting investigation into the possibility of these options,” the letter says. We “again emphasize the importance that our constituents are given every opportunity to examine all viable alternatives for the routing of this transmission line.”

The department didn’t return a request for comment.

The Northern Pass project is a topic of debate in many of the upcoming state and federal elections. Even though neither the Legislature nor Congress will vote directly on the permit, both bodies have a voice in the process, including letters or legislation.

At the state level, the project will need approval from the Site Evaluation Committee.

This year, the Legislature voted to change the makeup of that committee, slimming it down to nine members that include two new public members appointed by the governor and approved by the Executive Council. Gov. Maggie Hassan has yet to make those appointments and has until Oct. 1.

Another bill, which ultimately failed this year, would have directed the Site Evaluation Committee to give preference to projects that bury electric transmission lines.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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