Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some thoughts on political process on the eve of DOE hearings

This weekend, we, the opposition, are poised between two political processes, legislative hearings in Concord last week, and Department of Energy (DOE) public scoping meetings all over New Hampshire starting tomorrow. Many are still uncertain, troubled, about what actually happened in Concord last week. We know we saw lobbying up close and personal, many of us for the first time, and we are unclear what "retaining" a bill will ultimately mean about its chance of passage. Is it a circuitous way of killing it or a genuine effort to study and strengthen it? We may well end next week with the same questions, concerns, and uncertainties about what happened and will happen. We still don't know who the replacement EIS contractor is the day before the hearings begin, and we have no say in its selection. We may find that the DOE is not the "regulator" that we might expect, a body that polices and protects, but an agency whose mission is divided between studying and siting  this transmission project.

It is frustrating to be largely novices in these two intricate political processes when the stakes are so high for us, and it is equally annoying to be deprived of basic information. We may wish that we all had the inside track and could play the system like pros. But I am reminded of what Senator Paul Wellstone said about an opposition group of Minnesota farmers who fought a massive HVDC transmission project with 180' towers that was sited to run through their prime rural farmlands in the mid 1970s. It was the first major battle in America over such a transmission project. Wellstone was helping this group navigate hearings in the state capitol two years into the process, and he was surprised that the opposition still did not even know where the key legislators' offices were. How could they have gotten as far as they had in slowing down the project? But then it occurred to Wellstone that the opposition had gotten as far as it had precisely because it still did not know where the key legislators' offices were.

Wellstone's point is that grass roots opposition groups will never be as versed as politicians and regulators are in conventional political process, and we might think carefully about expending all our energy trying to compete like professionals in arenas foreign to us. Opposition groups must define their own political processes and actions. We don't control the timetable; instead, we must seize the opportunities that arise and use them creatively. We have done so brilliantly. None of us wanted this project thrust upon us just before the holidays; none of us has enjoyed driving all over the state in one of the hardest winters in recent memory to meet Northern Pass's urgent timetable. But that same timetable gave us huge snow banks, and we planted dozens of hand-painted orange protest signs in them that have captured media attention; it gave us town meetings in March, and we seized the opportunity to make a loud and clear statement about opposition to Northern Pass. 29 towns are now on record opposing the project. With all its lobbyists and money and state-of-the-art strategy, Northern Pass will never be able to buy publicity like that. Who has written a song in favor of Northern Pass? Who has painted a sign promoting the towers?

Wellstone goes on to document how,  when the Minnesota power line was built and in test phase, the farmers' protest escalated into guerrilla warfare and  sabotage. The farmers found a way to unbolt tower legs, apply leverage in just the right places, and topple the massive lattice work structures. Under cover of dark, seven went down. It was surprisingly easy. In addition to these "bolt weevil" attacks, "insulator disease" also struck at night, with the ground covered with shattered glass in the mornings. The assaults on the towers stopped not because of the armed response and legal action, which did ensue, but because the opposition communities disapproved of such risky and dangerous activity and exerted social control over their own members.

The story of the Minnesota power line, built to transmit coal-generated electricity to the Twin Cities across rural America, is a case study of everything that was wrong with American energy policy--and still is. One can map much of what happened there directly onto what is happening again in NH today. And the story did not have a happy ending. But Wellstone's point  that the opposition got as far as it did because it did not know its way around the traditional halls of power and influence, not in spite of it, is worth contemplating.

Grass roots opposition to the outdated and destructive technology of massively long and high overhead transmission lines has matured since the Minnesota effort of the mid '70s. The defeat of the New York Regional Interconnect overhead project, and the subsequent birth of the underground Champlain Hudson Power Express project now in permitting stage, is a good example. In New York, the people were able to connect to conventional political process and use it to best advantage. The result is a stunning success story.

But in New York, just as in Minnesota forty years ago and in New Hampshire today, the opposition also remained highly committed to nontraditional political activities, to spontaneous, improvised, creative, energetic, even humorous and satiric protest that emerges in response to events as they unfold. We have those few who can put on power suits and haunt the corridors of political influence, and we have those many who can put on blaze orange and seize the day out in the field--in the town hall meetings, the Snodeos, and all the other places that Northern Pass does not dare to go.

We need both, our tent is large, and we must all walk together in balance and mutual support.

(Much of Paul Wellstone's and Barry M. Casper's Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War [1981, 2003] can be read online. A good, short analytical review of the book and what went wrong in Minnesota and in American energy policy is here. And, you can read part of Noel Perrin's essay, "The Lesson of the Bolt Weevils," from Best Person Ruralhere. Perrin comments on the good that came out of opposition to the CU power line in Minnesota.)