Should utilities be allowed to build a Northern Pass?
By: LFDA Editor
Northern Pass is a proposed 180-mile transmission line which would bring electricity from Hydro-Quebec, a provincial government-owned utility which generates most of its power from hydroelectric dams, from the NH-Quebec border to a substation in Deerfield, where it would connect to the existing power grid.
Developers tout the project as providing "clean," renewable electricity, but landowners in the area and conservationists object to the project's possible deleterious impact on property values and the environment.
On March 5, 2012, then-Gov. John Lynch signed HB 648 that establishes a commission to study the procedural rights of homeowners in project, like this one, seeking eminent domain land takings.
The project is a partnership between Hydro-Quebec, Northeast Utilities, and NSTAR. The latter two companies are privately-owned utilities which provide electricity and natural gas to customers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as New Hampshire through the Northeast Utilities subsidiary Public Service of New Hampshire.
Proponents say that the project would benefit the state and the region on several levels: The "clean" electricity, they say, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise result from coal-generated electricity; the influx of new power would lower electricity prices overall; and the power would not be subject to the shortages and price spikes of the fossil fuel market. The partnership also says the project would benefit the state with 1,200 jobs per year over the three-year construction phase, and add new property taxes to state and local budgets.
But opponents say that these benefits are far outweighed by the negatives.
Much of the opposition centers on the northernmost part of Northern Pass's proposed route (view and download maps here). While much of the line would follow existing transmission lines, the upper 40 miles would require new rights of way to be cut through forests and other undeveloped land, much of it privately owned, with many of the landowners and nearby residents saying that building the line would destroy the region's natural beauty, and would negatively impact both the quality of life and the economic benefits derived from tourism and agriculture.
A number of landowners say they simply won't sell their land to let the line go through, and both they and their supporters have become incensed that the project's backers want to use eminent domain to take the land. While the use of eminent domain to take away private property is controversial, Northern Pass has generated particularly strong public opposition. Eminent domain, opponents feel, should only be used for government projects with a clearly-defined good for those affected. As a project of two private companies and a publicly-owned foreign utility, Northern Pass fails the first test; and in terms of public good, those most affected by the proposed land takings say that the damage to the places they live and work would not be offset by the benefits that the projects backers say it would provide.
Adding to the controversy is Northern Pass's recently-ended employment of a consulting firm to assess the project's environmental impact. The agreement was terminated shortly after it became known that the consultant had worked for Northeast Utilities previously, creating concerns of a conflict of interest.
Currently, the project is facing opposition at all levels of government, from the grassroots on up to U.S. Sens. Ayotte and Shaheen, both of whom have voiced concerns about how the project is being moved forward.
Bills in 2013 Legislature
Ten pieces of legislation filed in the 2013 Legislature have been identified as having a potential impact on projects such as Northern Pass:
HB 166 requires that transmission lines for future energy projects be buried if they are not needed for the “public good.” The bill does not define public good. HB 166 has been retained in committee for 2013;
HB 568 requires the transmission lines of all “elective” projects be buried. Northern Pass is considered an elective project. HB 568 has been retained in committee for 2013;
HB 569 requires that future transmission lines be placed within the state’s transportation corridors “to the extent possible.” HB 569 has been retained in committee for 2013;
HB 586 places a moratorium on new energy projects for one year. HB 586 has been retained in committee for 2013;
HB 580 places a moratorium on all wind and energy projects until the state develops a “comprehensive energy plan.” HB 580 has been retained in committee for 2013;
HB 449 calls for an economic impact analysis for future energy projects to determine what they will mean for jobs and incomes in the local communities. The bill would also require the state to consider the input of local communities before approving an energy project. HB 449 has been retained in committee for 2013;
HB 484 requires an energy project to receive public approval anywhere the project’s structures were visible. Any town that could see a structure would register its approval or disapproval by a town vote. HB 484 has been retained in committee for 2013;
SB 99 increases the public’s representation in hearings before the state board that issues permits for energy projects. It would also set additional standards for these projects, including an analysis of how views and property values would be affected by a project. SB 99 passed the Senate in March and is now in the House;
SB 191 creates a state energy plan for evaluating future energy projects. SB 191 passed the Senate in March and is now in the House;
HB 306 seeks to create a commission to develop an energy strategy for the state. HB 306 passed the House in March and is now in the Senate.
The LFDA is closely following this issue, and will update this page as well as our home page and Facebook site with new information as it becomes available. To go to the LFDA's issue page for Eminent Domain, click here.