Site Evaluation Committee rejects Northern Pass appeal for new hearing
By DAVE SOLOMON State House Bureau
CONCORD — There will be no reconsideration of the Northern Pass by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee.
The committee charged with ruling on the controversial hydroelectric project has decided it will not reconsider its February decision to deny the application by Eversource, the state’s largest utility, for the 192-mile transmission line from Pittsburg to Deerfield.
The seven members of the committee assigned to the Northern Pass hearings reaffirmed their unanimous rejection of the $1.6 billion project on Feb. 1 and their written decision of March 30 after a day of deliberations on Thursday.
An appeal to the state Supreme Court is now the most likely option for the project.
“We will pursue all options for moving the project forward,” said Eversource spokesman Martin Murray. “We don’t take lightly an appeal to the Supreme Court. It’s a rare occurrence and one we take only when we have strong conviction and confidence that we will prevail.”
In its motion for reconsideration, Eversource pointed out that the SEC only deliberated on two of the four criteria for project approval before its February denial.
The majority of committee members on Thursday agreed that project approval would have required consideration of all four criteria, but denial could be made on the basis of only one.
The four criteria required for approval were: the project will serve the public interest; will not have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety; will not unduly interfere with the region’s orderly development; and the applicant has adequate financial, technical and managerial capability to assure construction and operation.
All seven members of the Site Evaluation Committee agreed that Northern Pass had not met its burden to show the proposed transmission line would not “unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region,” and denied the permit on that basis alone.
In another objection, Eversource claimed that the SEC failed to articulate any conditions under which it might have approved the project. The committee denied reconsideration on that basis, claiming it was not its job to outline hypothetical scenarios.
“The statute doesn’t require us to say we didn’t approve the application you submitted, but we might approve one submitted all these different ways,” said committee member and chair Martin Honigberg, who also serves as chair of the Public Utilities Commission.
The project sponsors also claimed the SEC was “arbitrary and ad hoc” in the way it interpreted various rules governing the committee. That objection was rejected by the SEC as well.
The committee also rejected arguments that it misunderstood or disregarded evidence regarding the project’s impact on property values, tourism and precedent in the use of existing utility rights of way for new or expanded projects.
“With tourism, it struck me that they were very far off the mark there, compared to some of the other expert witnesses for the applicant,” said committee member Christopher Way, with the Department of Business and Economic Affairs. “For property values and in particular tourism, they just didn’t convince me. There wasn’t the outreach; there wasn’t data from surveys.”
Eversource also argued that the written order by the committee reflects deliberations that took place outside public view, in violation of the state’s Right-to-Know law.
“They are saying there are things in the order that we didn’t talk about when we were deliberating in public, and so we must have done something behind the scenes,” said Honigberg.
Committee member Kathryn Bailey disputed that, saying, “You can find some form of discussion about every single thing that is in the written order in our public deliberations. It may not be word for word, but it’s not supposed to be word for word. The applicant did not provide any examples of where the order raises something we didn’t discuss in deliberations.”
Record for the court
The final objection was that the deliberative process was too hasty and did not provide an adequate record for the anticipated appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“Our order reflects our deliberations and has a more than adequate record for the Supreme Court,” said Honigberg.
The committee opened its deliberations on reconsideration by voting to reject a motion by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers calling on PUC Commissioner Bailey and public member Patricia M. Weathersby to recuse themselves for alleged prejudice against the project. Honigberg called the motion “without merit.”
Northern Pass, first proposed in 2010, was scheduled to go on line in 2020 had the application been approved. The route is planned to run through more than 30 communities and includes 60 miles of buried lines.
More than 20 communities along the route oppose the project, as does the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
“The Forest Society applauds the SEC’s thoroughness and backbone. We believe they made the correct decision to deny the motion for rehearing,” said spokesman Jack Savage. “We stand ready to continue the fight to defend New Hampshire’s landscapes from Northern Pass at the New Hampshire Supreme Court should Eversource take its complaints there.”
Northern Pass supporters include Gov. Chris Sununu, the state Business and Industry Association, the cities of Berlin and Franklin, chambers of commerce in Nashua and Manchester and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“This opportunity to significantly lower energy costs for customers should be given great weight,” said Eversource-NH President Bill Quinlan. “Large infrastructure projects of this scale often face challenges during the siting process, and we will continue to work with all of the stakeholders to present a project that receives New Hampshire’s approval.”