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June 24. 2014 8:07PM

Conservation group slams 'secret' work between governors, utilities


Conservation Law Foundation findings

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CLF briefing on its findings

Documents cited by CLF (.zip file)

The effort by New England governors to promote construction of electric transmission lines and a new natural gas pipeline into the region has been shrouded in secrecy, according to the Conservation Law Foundation, which on Tuesday released documents it obtained as part of a Freedom of Information request.

“The documents reveal not only outright hostility to conducting the planning process in the open, but also a troubling willingness on the part of state officials to take enormous risks with our money, our region’s energy progress and our climate,” wrote CLF staff attorney Christophe Courchesne in a blog post about the effort being coordinated by the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE).

“The states and NESCOE are deliberately working out the details of this plan in secret, consistent with the view of one of NESCOE’s staffers that the plan should be ‘formulated behind closed doors’ because the ‘court of public opinion can be fickle and recalcitrant,’ ” Courchesne wrote, quoting an email from a NESCOE staff member to Executive Director Heather Hunt.

As a follow-up to their Energy Infrastructure Initiative, announced in December, the governors through NESCOE plan to select one electric transmission and one gas pipeline project by issuing requests for proposals. The winner in that process could be eligible for cost-recovery through a tariff administered by ISO-NE, the independent system operator.

The initiative emerged after a long, cold winter strained the limited natural gas pipelines into New England. Prices for electricity soared as most of the available natural gas was used to heat homes and businesses, leaving little if any to fuel power plants. Manufacturing plants in Maine and New Hampshire had to furlough employees and shut down for days at a time.

The CLF, a nonprofit environmental group that is active in all six states, filed a public records request in March, seeking documents from the states and NESCOE regarding the effort.

In addition to “shielding analysis of the plan from public scrutiny,” the environmental group maintains that the initiative is rife with conflicts of interest and is ignoring smaller, more affordable solutions.

'Rife with conflicts'

“The governors’ initiative is premised on extensive influence, behind closed doors, from the very pipeline and utility companies that stand to earn billions if this plan is implemented,” according to Courchesne.

He said the documents reveal a series of private meetings and calls with NESCOE and state representatives, and the electric and gas utilities who stand to benefit most from the governors’ plan.

“They are now helping to define their roles as middlemen,” he said. “In fact, Northeast Utilities itself drafted the document the states and NESCOE are using to manage conflicts of interest when utilities buy power from their own transmission projects, like NU’s Northern Pass.”

Northern Pass opponents are concerned that the plan to bring hydroelectricity from Quebec into New England could enter the RFP bidding and obtain some degree of rate-payer financing.

“As for the governors’ interest in buying more Canadian hydropower by forcing customers to pay for new international power lines, the documents include recent analysis showing that hydropower doesn’t need long-term contracts or other help, and that it wasn’t even available to New England when we wanted it during the coldest days of last winter,” according to Courchesne. “However, the states and NESCOE appear to be disregarding these findings entirely.”

William Hinkle, a spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan, said the governors’ initiative will be subject to public review at various points in the process.

“As you know, energy constraints cost New England ratepayers an estimated $3 billion on their energy bills this winter,” he said. “The New England states continue to explore the most prudent ways to address those energy constraints, working with regional stakeholders, including consumer representatives and other interests, to ensure that new resources are brought to the region in a cost-effective manner.”

Courchesne said the documents obtained by the CLF suggest otherwise.

“This effort is not about reliability, as NESCOE would have us believe,” he said. “It’s about directing public money to large energy companies outside of public oversight.”

Only 2 states respond

The CLF developed its analysis based on documents received from only two states, Maine and New Hampshire, according to Courchesne, who said the CLF is considering legal action to force compliance by the other states and NESCOE.

Heather Hunt, executive director of NESCOE, refused to release any documents, writing in an April letter to the CLF that NESCOE is not subject to Freedom of Information or right-to-know statutes.

“Despite acting on behalf of state governments and receiving $2 million annually in public funding through our electricity bills, NESCOE claims that it is not subject to public records laws and is refusing to provide any documents to CLF,” wrote Courchesne. “Most of the New England states have not yet provided or are actively withholding their documents about the plan.”

On the same day the CLF released its report, another environmental coalition, Environment Northeast, submitted a letter to the New England governors raising its concerns about the initiative, signed by 102 different organizations and businesses.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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