THE BATTLE OVER the “Northern Pass” project to build a transmission superhighway 187 miles from the Canadian border to Deerfield took an interesting turn last month.
Northeast Utilities, the Connecticut-based energy behemoth behind Northern Pass, announced a new “compromise” route. For nearly three years, NU said it that it could not economically bury the proposed power lines. Yet suddenly NU graced New Hampshire with the news that it could now afford to bury two small sections, a 2,300-foot stretch under Route 3, and a 7.5-mile section along existing road corridors.
The alternative had been for NU to break a conservation easement protecting the headwaters of the Upper Connecticut, which would have tied the project up in litigation with a questionable likelihood of success. Somehow NU was able to find an extra couple of hundred million dollars to move the route and bury a few miles, patting itself so mightily on its back for its willingness to “compromise.”
Not everyone thought the so–called compromise was much of a compromise. State Sen. Jeff Woodburn of Dalton called the proposal baby steps, while Gov. Maggie Hassan suggested NU should explore options for burying more of the lines.
That lack of enthusiasm is not the interesting turn, however. The interesting turn is the announcement by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which opposes the Northeast Utilities proposal, that it owns the land under the sections of Route 3 where the lines would be buried. It is a basic tenet of road law that unless there has been an actual deed of the roadway to the government, a road is just an easement. The land itself is owned by the abutting property owners. As the property owner, the society can block the use of the land for Northern Pass.
Northeast Utilities responded by attacking the highly respected society, expressing disappointment that it was trying to block underground construction. No, actually the society is exercising its rights as a land owner to tell Northeast Utilities to get off its property, while saving the state from the blight of a for-profit transmission highway.
This is a pretty big “oops” moment for Northeast Utilities. It is hard to feel too sorry for the company, however. Its Northern Pass proposal will not just affect the North Country. It will have a significant impact on central New Hampshire and its property owners, as towers at least 100 feet high will be located in a right of way that currently only holds much shorter distribution poles.
Moreover, when comparing Northern Pass to New York’s Champlain Hudson Power Express transmission project, some things just don’t add up. Champlain Hudson will be 333 miles long, totally buried. Northeast Utilities says more than 1,200 jobs will be created in New Hampshire over the construction phase, yet the New York project, 150 miles longer and $800 million dollars more expensive, will create 300 direct jobs during its 3.5-year construction phase. The Champlain Hudson Power Express owners will establish a $117 million environmental trust fund over 35 years, with nearly $10 million paid in the first year. What is Northeast Utilities proposing to give New Hampshire? Nothing yet, but maybe they will decide to give us all nifty T-shirts or bumper stickers.
When reading about the New York project, I can’t help get the feeling that Northeast Utilities is trying to take advantage of New Hampshire, and doing it on the cheap, like we are a state full of rubes. Why can one project afford to put so much money on the table for an environmental trust fund, while the other offers nothing? Why is the Northern Pass per-mile cost so much higher than Champlain Hudson, which will bury the lines underground and underwater? It is a puzzle.
It is a puzzle we may never get answers to because the legal issues raised by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests are very real; just ask any experienced real estate attorney. The not-really-a-compromise route has a big, perhaps insurmountable, problem. Northeast Utilities faces what it hoped to avoid: lengthy litigation with an uncertain outcome.
The day before the Forest Society announcement, Northeast Utilities held a conference call with financial analysts, in which company officials said how well things were going with the project and its new route. The next quarterly call may be a little awkward. At some point, investors will start asking if Northeast Utilities really has a grip on the project, and whether it is prudent to continue to throw money at a project that can’t get off the ground. Northern Pass may not be just a bad deal for New Hampshire; it may be a bad deal for Northeast Utilities.
Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.