January 22. 2014 7:12PM

NH House backs burial of Northern Pass, other future transmission lines

Senior Political Reporter

THURSDAY, JAN. 23, UPDATE: House Bill 569 will not be sent to the House Ways and Means Committee, after all. House Clerk Karen Wadsworth told UnionLeader.com that this morning Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Susan Almy informed her that she has decided not to take the bill, which is allowable under a House rule.

Wadsworth said the decision means that the bill will now go directly to the state Senate and there will be no second vote on the House floor. Our story has been updated to refect this important development.)

CONCORD -- In a clear slap at the Northern Pass project, New Hampshire's House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill directing the state's siting panel to "give preference" to burying electric transmission lines as it considers where and how future projects should be constructed.

House Bill 569 would not mandate that the lines be buried, as a pending Senate bill would. It tells the state Site Evaluation Committee that the burial of transmission lines is "the preferred, but not required, option for locating all new electric transmission lines" with towers more than 50 feet in height.

The bill also tells the SEC that existing public rights of way must also be the preferred option and allows the SEC to "presume that any line not required for system reliability and not proposed to be substantially buried will have an unreasonably adverse impact on aesthetics."

Under the bill, developers must show by a preponderance of evidence during siting proceedings that an above-ground line should be approved due to engineering, environmental and cost considerations.

The Site Evaluation Committee is the 16-member state panel responsible for the approval of the siting of energy projects. Its membership comprises officials of various state agencies, including the Public Utilities Commission and the state's environmental and economic development departments.

The bill passed on a roll call vote of 171-139 after a long debate and two attempts to table it failed.

It initially was slated to go to the House Ways and Means Committee for further review and then back to the House for another vote. But Thursday morning, House Clerk Karen Wadsworth confirmed that Ways and Means Chair Susan Almy decided not to take the bill in her committee, which she said is allowable under a House rule.

Wadsworth said that as a result, the bill will go directly to the state Senate.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Works strongly opposes the bill, saying on its web site it would "devastate the outside electrical industry in New Hampshire." A group of its members braved the cold Wednesday with a show of opposition outside the State House.

Rep. Robert Backus, D-Manchester, a long-time ratepayer advocate and attorney who spent many years battling the Seabrook nuclear plant in the 1980s, said took the utility's side in this instance.

He said the bill was unnecessary because the SEC takes aesthetics into consideration when reviewing and deliberating on applications.

Backus called the bill "unsound legislative policy" and interference in matter that should be left to the siting committee, and he warned that the cost of burying lines could be three times the cost of conventional overhead construction -- costs which could be passed on to ratepayers.

But Rep. Robert Theberge, D-Berlin, said that unless the Northern Pass lines are buried, they would "negatively impact the aesthetics of the White Mountains and threaten New Hampshire's tourism industry."

He said New Hampshire is meeting its energy needs and should not create a "scar" on its landscape because states to the south are not.

Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, opposed the bill, warning that its requirement could make the state more vulnerable to natural gas,"which has experience a jump in price recently. He contended New Hampshire's energy costs "are already 40 percent higher than in other parts of the country."

Rep. Jacqueline Cali-Pitts, D-Portsmouth, also opposed it, warning the restriction imposed by the bill will send a confusing message about the state's overall regulatory climate to businesses looking to move to the state and "put another bullet in the head of any transmission project that will come along."

Rep. Laurence Rappaport, R-Colebrook, said, however, that it is the Legislature's job to set policy, and, "I don't feel we should be afraid to give (the SEC) direction. That's what we should do."

In November, after the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee voted 12-7, to recommend passage of the bill, a Northern Pass spokesman called the measure "a clear case of the Legislature targeting a specific project and not allowing the public permitting process to do its work."

The spokesman, Mike Skelton, said the legislation, if approved, will discourage developers from pursuing energy transmission projects in the Granite State.

"We are very concerned that this legislation will simply drive energy costs higher at a time when existing power generation sources are closing their doors and new sources of low-cost energy need to be developed to meet future demand," Skelton said.

Another spokesman, Lauren Collins, said after Wednesday's vote, "We look forward to the House Ways and Means Committee further evaluating this bill and giving the full House another chance to consider its potential impacts.

"New Hampshire and New England have an immediate need to find new sources of clean, affordable energy," she said. "We should be doing what we can to foster renewable development, not stand in the way with a bill that goes against good public policy."