Littleton Courier and Coos County Democrat editorial, 5/25/2016 -
A bad week for Northern Pass
The level of negative public comments about Northern Pass was not surprising at a hearing in Whitefield on Thursday evening. Even with opposition to the project from all but one speaker, the hearing was not enough for the controversial hydropower transmission project to have a bad week. Additional facts learned Thursday could be downright devastating for Northern Pass, however. The Site Evaluation Committee and the Department of Environmental Services took steps to cause a big momentum shift toward those who oppose the project.
The SEC's decision to add nine months to the review of Northern Pass demonstrates what many have thought for a long time: The project is too complicated and impactful for a regulatory review to conclude by the original deadline, which was late this year. Now, with the decision date on a construction permit pushed to the end of September 2017, one wonders if Hydro Quebec, which would build Northern Pass with its partner Eversource, will decide the fight is not worth it. With nine more months to make their case, those who oppose the project have wind at their backs now.
Perhaps more devastating to the project, DES has issued a detailed list of regulatory findings that lead to one simple conclusion: The preferred route of the applicant will not receive wetlands and alteration of terrain permits in its current form. DES clearly supports more burial of the transmission lines, and Northern Pass is going to need to spend a lot more money on re-routing the project and making more people happy.
Another big question for the coming months will be whether the proposed Forward NH Fund, which promises millions in economic development for the state, can be considered as part of the benefits from Northern Pass. State law requires the SEC to determine the project is in the "public interest," and project opponents do not see why the fund should be considered part of the electricity transmission application. A determination that a public interest finding need not consider the fund's benefits would be an even bigger blow than what state regulators delivered last week.
Many residents in our region, with some justification, have wondered if the state's regulators were going to quickly approve Northern Pass, regardless of the strong opposition to the project in our region. The SEC and DES have proven they are not lap dogs of the utility industry by taking strong steps in a direction Hydro Quebec obviously does not want to go.
Maybe Hydro Quebec is not that concerned about pleasing people who live in the North Country. But they learned a big lesson this week: Failure to please regulators means more upfront costs during the application process, and therefore less profit from the long life they hope to wrest from Northern Pass infrastructure. This editor would now like to ask another question: Will the project ever happen? That is not as silly to ask as it may seem. After all, we are almost six years out from the original project proposal, and Northern Pass is nowhere close to moving its first speck of dirt along the transmission route.