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State committee delays Northern Pass decision until 2018

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 31. 2017 2:45PM

CONCORD — A state committee won't make any decision on the proposed Northern Pass project until 2018, drawing rebukes from a state business group and a labor union.

"Regulators are playing roulette with New Hampshire's economy," said Jim Roche, president of the state Business and Industry Association, which describes itself as neutral on the project. "State regulators must demonstrate leadership and stop kicking the can down the road."

The Site Evaluation Committee voted 6-0 Thursday to push back its Sept. 30 deadline for making a decision on the project. It now is targeting making a decision orally by Feb. 28, with a written decision by March 31.

"These delays continue to hurt the economy and kill jobs in the state," said Brian Murphy, business manager for Barrington's Local 104 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 1,000 outside electrical linemen in five states, including New Hampshire.

"At a time when the Trump administration and federal agencies are speeding up decisions and improving efficiency on the permitting of key infrastructure projects, New Hampshire is mired in a regulatory swamp," Murphy said.

The proposed $1.6 billion project, which runs through more than 30 communities, needs several state and federal approvals before it can start operating by late 2020. The route runs from Pittsburg to Deerfield and includes 60 miles of buried lines.

"Nobody wants this to go on forever, but due process and the size of the project and the relative incompleteness of the Northern Pass information so far is extending it," said project critic Jack Savage, vice president of communications/outreach for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

Northern Pass officials had hoped to garner all necessary approvals by the end of this year. Northern Pass recently pushed its in-service date to late 2020, partly due to a longer than expected hearings process.

Northern Pass spokesman Kaitlyn Woods said "Northern Pass is disappointed in today's decision," considering the project already has faced delays.

She said project officials "remain confident in our ability to achieve a 2020 in-service date." The SEC had set a deadline of December 2016 for making a decision, then extended it to Sept. 30 before extending it yet again.

An Aug. 15 report from the committee's counsel said the committee needed more than 45 hearing days to complete questioning witnesses offered by various parties, including a few remaining Northern Pass witnesses. But only about a third of those had been scheduled through Sept. 29, meaning a deadline extension was expected.

Northern Pass was among those submitting proposals to answer a solicitation from Massachusetts Clean Energy, which is lining up new sources of clean power for Massachusetts electric customers.

Jan. 25 is the deadline for selection of projects for negotiation for Massachusetts Clean Energy — before Northern Pass officials will know whether they are going to get the New Hampshire committee's blessing.

Savage said the SEC delay could mean "good news" for competing proposals.

But Woods said: "We are convinced that we have submitted the most mature project into the Massachusetts RFP (request for proposals) and we continue to believe that we will be in a position to start construction in the second quarter of 2018."

Meanwhile, Northern Pass announced the U.S. Department of Energy finalized an agreement that outlines the steps needed to complete reviews by state and federal agencies of historical and archaeological resources, including how to address any adverse effects the project might create.

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