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March 26. 2013 10:19PM

Legislation gives Northern Pass project a pass, foes insist

CONCORD - Northern Pass opponents are furious that a bill to place a one-year ban on all large-scale energy projects in the state was approved by a Senate subcommittee on March 20 only after it was amended to remove the large-scale hydroelectric project from the moratorium.

Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, the only member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to vote against the change, plans to introduce legislation on the Senate floor Thursday that would force the Senate as a whole to take a stand on whether Northern Pass should be included in the one-year moratorium.

"I will be bringing forward, along with Sen. (Jeanie) Forrester, R-Meredith, an amendment to put electric transmission back into the bill," said Woodburn. "We feel it's important to take a stand on this issue, and let our colleagues do so as well."

The idea for the moratorium grew out of a concern among lawmakers that the state Site Evaluation Committee (SEC), which has jurisdiction over any energy project generating more than 30 megawatts, was being overwhelmed with proposals, especially for large-scale wind turbines.

The committee currently has six wind projects pending, and recently denied a proposal for turbines in Antrim.

A large group of Northern Pass opponents crowded into the Senate hearing room on March 20, even though the plan to bring hydroelectricity from Quebec into the Northeast via New Hampshire is not officially yet before the SEC. If the bill, SB 99, is approved, with hydroelectric projects included, Northern Pass would be precluded from bringing an application forward for at least another year.

The five-member Committee on Energy and Natural Resources heard testimony from 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., on March 20, according to the committee chairman, Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, and took in volumes of written testimony that Northern Pass opponents thought would be considered prior to a vote.

Instead, the committee went into executive session after the hearing ended. Committee member and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, introduced an amendment to limit the ban to wind energy proposals, which was approved 4-1.

Northern Pass opponents were outraged. "Your behavior yesterday (March 20), in addition to being despicable, was also reprehensible," wrote Dorothy M. McPhaul of Sugar Hill in an email to committee members.

"You led people to believe, if not outright lied to them, that you would read their testimonies. You intentionally led us to believe the bill was done for the day. You went on to the next bill, and after we left, you brought back SB-99 for a vote. That was devious and underhanded, made all the worse because you never read the testimonies."


A problem with process

Prescott admits the process was flawed, but defended the outcome. He said he should have informed the crowd at the hearing that March 20 was "crossover day," the day when any bills that originate in the Senate must cross over to the House for consideration, and vice versa.

"I did make a mistake," he said. "And I've apologized to everyone I could. The information was not brought out at the hearing that we had to have all bills over to the House by the end of the day. So I fully understand the frustration of those who testified."

Committee member Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, agreed.

"I don't usually believe we should hear a bill and act on it in the same day," she said, "and normally we wouldn't. But it was the last day for crossover, and there were time constraints."

Fuller Clark said much of the testimony was redundant, and there will still be plenty of time to address Northern Pass, which she opposes, since the project doesn't even have a formal application pending.

"I do not believe the Northern Pass should go forward," she said, "but I did not believe it was appropriate for us to rule on one specific project, when we already set up the Site Evaluation Committee to do that."

A lead sponsor of the state's renewable energy standards, Fuller Clark said there is still a real question of whether Northern Pass and its partners will even bring an application to the SEC.

"We didn't want to make a blanket decision to stop all SEC applications," said Prescott. "We made a decision to stop the filings for wind energy because there are many imminent issues. They are right on our doorstep. The decisions are going to be made soon. Northern Pass has not even approached the Department of Energy or addressed how it's going to get over the border."

Worst fears

Opponents like Nancy Martland, another Sugar Hill resident, said the March 20 vote only confirmed their worst fears. "Most of the opposition have taken it to support their belief that 'the fix is in' regarding Northern Pass," she wrote in an email, "and that PSNH is in the driver's seat, not only in the Legislature but with state agencies as well."

Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, said he expects a lively debate on Thursday.

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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