N.H. Supreme Court agrees with state’s rejection of Northern Pass transmission line

  • Opponents of the proposed Northern Pass power project protest outside the New Hampshire Supreme Court on May 15, 2019, ., where a hearing is being held on the future of the project. (AP Photo/Michael Casey) Michael Casey

  • The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee and other interested parties visit a location at Alton Woods in Concord that would be affected by the Northern Pass project on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 7/19/2019 9:18:15 AM

It looks like Northern Pass is really dead this time: The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday upheld the project’s rejection last year by the state Site Evaluation Committee.

“We have reviewed the record and conclude that the Subcommittee’s findings are supported by competent evidence and are not erroneous as a matter of law,” Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi wrote in the unanimous decision.

The ruling leaves no obvious way forward for the 192-mile transmission line carrying almost a Seabrook Station’s worth of electricity down from Quebec hydropower plants, ending almost a decade of often-contentious debate.

In a statement, Eversource said it would “closely review the Supreme Court’s decision and evaluate all potential options for moving forward.” Gov. Chris Sununu’s reaction to the ruling was blunt.

“The Court has made it clear – it is time to move on. There are still many clean energy projects that lower electric rates to explore and develop for New Hampshire and the rest of New England,” Sununu, a longtime supporter of the project, said in a statement Friday.

The ruling also reinforces the importance of the Site Evaluation Committee, which must approve large-scale energy projects in New Hampshire such as power stations, transmission lines and pipelines. The SEC consists of seven members of various state agencies and five members of the public, appointed by the governor and Executive Council.

“Really hard to beat the state in court on a siting denial,” wrote Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, in response to the ruling.

Meanwhile, an alternative transmission line that would bring around 1,000 megawatts of Quebec hydropower into New England is going forward in Maine, where it is facing a similar debate about energy access and preservation of open space.

Eversource proposed Northern Pass back in 2011 as a shareholder-funded way to sell 1,090 megawatts of power into the New England grid. It first sought state approval in 2015.

Almost from the start, the plan drew criticism from some people and groups in the North Country worried about the visual effect of a large power corridor cutting through the White Mountain National Forest. Since the proposed line would cut east of Concord, within site of top floors of some downtown buildings, some opposition arose here, as well.

The project was rejected in 2018 by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee when a subcommittee voted that Eversource had not met its burden to show the project would “not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region,” one of four criteria that needed to be met. That surprise vote ended deliberations earlier than expected.

Eversource based much of its appeal of the decision on that early conclusion, arguing that the SEC did not complete its work because it didn’t consider two other criteria – environmental impact and the public good – before voting. The SEC did say Northern Pass met the fourth criterion, which concerns financial stability.

The state and lawyers for environmental groups and neighbors on the project’s route argued against giving the project a new hearing, saying the SEC did everything required by law in reviewing Northern Pass.

The Supreme Court’s ruling agreed with them: “The legislature has delegated broad authority to the Committee to consider the ‘potential significant impacts and benefits of a project,’ and to make findings on various objectives before ultimately determining whether to grant an application. ... In this case, the Subcommittee considered and weighed extensive evidence including testimony from 154 witnesses and over 2,000 exhibits presented by the parties, including 160 intervenors, conducted seven site visits, and held 70 days of adjudicative hearings.”

It made clear that the court was expressing no opinion about whether Northern Pass is a good idea or not: “We reiterate that it is not our task to reweigh the evidence or to determine whether we would have credited one expert over another.”

Meanwhile, an alternative line to connect Hydro-Quebec with New England is proposed through Maine by that state’s largest utility, Central Maine Power. It is facing many of the same objections that Northern Pass faced, including concern about the effect of transmission line towers through backcountry regions.

Further west, a similar line running down the Hudson River Valley and connecting Quebec with New York City has received conditional approval. All of these lines would carry about 1,000 megawatts of power, or four-fifths as much electricity as Seabrook Station nuclear power plant can put out at maximum.

The electricity would come from massive dam construction that the province of Quebec has undertaken in recent decades, hoping to turn itself into the Saudi Arabia of hydropower, as well as a push for carbon-free sources of electricity.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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