Northern Pass Rejected

In light of the NH Site Evaluation Committee's unanimous vote yesterday to DENY the Northern Pass application, I thought I'd post my 2 cents on this destructive project that so threatened fish and wildlife.

America needs conservation as well as clean, renewable power. What it doesn’t need is redundant energy sprawl from ruined woods and waters to our north. Finally, one state is taking a stand.

Hydro-Quebec Hits Granite

by Ted Williams

In the polar vortex of late January 2014 the thermometer on my truck dash reads minus 6. “No Pass,” the signs keep shouting. Why, I wonder, are people so paranoid about drivers way up here in northern New Hampshire’s Coos County? Even a Masshole from Taxachusetts wouldn’t pass on these narrow roads, snow-clad despite the salt and unlit by man or, on this night, moon or stars. Finally a more explicit sign enlightens me: “Northern Pass Kiss my Ass.”

Despised throughout New Hampshire, the Northern Pass is both a proposed high-voltage transmission line and the name of the limited liability company that hopes to build it. That company is a coupling of provincial-government-owned Hydro-Quebec (world's largest hydroelectric producer) and Hartford, Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities, a private corporation that peddles electricity and natural gas.

If Northern Pass is correct in its prognostications, in three years 1,500 steel towers, some 135 feet high, along with a 7.5-mile underground stretch, will carry 1,200 megawatts 187 miles from the international border to Deerfield, New Hampshire where it will be collected by the New England grid.

At least the southern 147 miles will follow existing power-line rights-of-way. But the high steel towers and wires along this stretch will cause significant avian mortality because many songbirds migrate at night when they can’t see well and when they feel safe above tree line. That loss, however, will be dwarfed by mortality in New Hampshire’s currently intact northern forest, and not just from tower and line strikes. A wide, clearcut swath and a maze of access roads will fragment habitat. The main victims will be Neotropical migrants. But the cleared land won’t harm all birds. A few species will benefit, mostly ones we don’t need more of -- brown-headed cowbirds, for example, which will parasitize the nests of birds we’re running out of.

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Incursions into our last best land and water by highly capitalized, multinational energy corporations have become de rigueur. We’ve seen it in the Gulf of Mexico where British Petroleum flouted safety regulations. We’ve seen it in Alaska where the Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell, Europe's largest oil company, threatens our largest intact marine and terrestrial ecosystems and the people whose lives depend on them. And we’ve seen it in the middle of our country where Calgary-based TransCanada is bluffing and bullying its way through six states in order to pipe the world’s dirtiest oil under, over, and through some of our best water supplies and most fragile wildlife habitats.

But in a stance that other states and other political bodies need to heed New Hampshire has scratched a line in its granite. The state motto “Live Free or Die” and the sanctity of the individual are taken seriously here where 400 representatives and 24 senators answer to a population of only 1.3 million. That’s by far the largest state legislature, larger than Canada’s, larger, in fact, than all but three of the world’s English-speaking nations.

“It has done my heart great good to see all the people who have come out to fight the Northern Pass,” says Jack Savage communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (Forest Society). “Conservatives, liberals, and forest-society types have come together to say, ‘No, this is about who we are as a state, what we value. No, we’re not going to let you do this; we like what we have.”

New Hampshire may well win this fight; and if it doesn’t, it will go down with all guns blazing. Either way it can teach America an important lesson.

Until January 2012 the challenge of Northern Pass was to seize or buy enough land to ram through its line. But in that month the legislature enacted a law forbidding eminent domain for such projects. At that point the company had to rely just on land purchase, but the Forest Society blocked the preferred route by acquiring strategic easements. So in June 2013 Northern Pass moved the route west and pledged to bury 7.5 miles of the line. The Society believes the new route is also protected by easements. Northern Pass, now basing its project entirely on a legal theory, claims otherwise.

Three state bills in the works would: require applicants to the Site Evaluation Committee “to present alternatives, including but not limited to the burial of energy transmission facilities in publicly-owned transportation rights of way”; “require the Public Utilities Commission to establish best practices assessment scoring for energy transmission projects”; and require the Site Evaluation Committee to consider “municipal and regional concerns, and adverse effects before issuing a certificate for an energy facility.”

Northern Pass can build its transmission line: if the courts agree with its notions about existing easements; if it prevails against NGOs and citizen groups that will almost surely sue; and if it can win approval from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, ISO New England (operator of the regional electric grid), the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

That’s a lot of “ifs.” But they all seem to take wing when one chats with Northern Pass flacks, as I discovered at the Manchester headquarters of Northeast Utilities’ subsidiary, the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH). I was greeted by one Michael Skelton, young, clean cut, articulate, and passionate about “keeping the lights on.” He explained that Granite State citizens and their politicians display “a fundamental misunderstanding of how energy works” when they claim that a foreign government and an accessory from Connecticut want to use their pristine northern frontier on which so much of their economy depends as a sacrifice area to run a habitat-wrecking extension cord to southern New England. “Energy,” he proclaimed, “does not recognize political boundaries.”

“New England is different than other parts of the country,” he continued. “We don’t have native fuel sources. Everything we use to generate electricity we have to import. So our energy costs are 40 percent higher than in other parts of the country. Older sources, like Vermont Yankee [an ancient nuke] are about to retire. Northern pass will bring in as much electricity as one [older] nuclear power plant, three natural gas plants, or 2,000 wind turbines. It will displace five million tons of carbon per year.”

Nothing Skelton said is untrue, but there’s more to be said. Northeast Utilities is the biggest toxic and greenhouse gas polluter in New England, and one of the reasons regional energy costs are so high is that the company insists on running two ancient and uneconomic coal-fired power plants (in Bow and Portsmouth, New Hampshire) that should have been decommissioned years ago. So its ratepayers are being forced to essentially subsidize the fossil-fuel pollution that blights them. “When Northeast Utilities claims that Northern Pass is needed to reduce carbon emissions we suggest they first look in the mirror,” remarks Chris Courchesne of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.

And by making PSNH employees like Skelton spend their time tub-thumbing for the Northern Pass, Northeast Utilities is promoting its private, commercial venture with assets of New Hampshire ratepayers who have little to gain and much to lose from the project.

Finally, Northeast Utilities has been bashed for circumventing Connecticut law to obtain favorable regulations. In 2010 CEO Thomas May emailed employees, directing them to contribute to the ultimately successful gubernatorial campaign of Dannel Malloy who sought subsidies for Northern Pass energy by getting large-scale hydro power certified as “renewable.” May instructed his people to make checks payable to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee (direct contributions are unlawful). They coughed up $46,500, and in June 2013 Malloy signed a bill granting the certification.

“ISO New England is charged with determining what power the region requires; and it has made no determination that we need the Northern Pass,” says the Forest Society’s Jack Savage. “People assume Northern Pass is a utility project. It’s not; it’s private, commercial development of our best wild land. This is not about what's good for the environment, New Hampshire, energy consumers, or even the energy market. It’s about what's good for Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec.”

But while New England has enough energy now, Skelton’s point that more will be needed is well taken. Perhaps it will come from the Northern Pass. More likely it will come from domestic renewable sources like wind and from other transmission lines out of Canada. The $2.2 billion Champlain Hudson Power Express project, which will carry up to 1,000 megawatts 333 miles to the New York metro area, is farther along than the Northern Pass, having attained a state-siting permit and a draft environmental impact statement from the Department of Energy. The $2 billion Northeast Energy Link will carry 1,100 megawatts 230 miles to southern New England. And the $1.2 billion New England Clean Power Link will carry 1,000 megawatts 150 miles to the New England grid. All these lines will be underground and underwater.

Skelton also speaks the truth when he repeats his company’s mantra that burying the Northern Pass will be more expensive than the estimated $1.4 billion cost of running it overground. But, the three other transmission projects in the works make it clear that burying is somewhat cost competitive. And even if it weren’t, why should Americans care since a foreign government will be footing the bill?

As our interview concluded, Skelton veered from a subject I knew little about to one he knew little about. “Towers,” he declared, “are the preferred method for transmission for environmental reasons. You’re going to disrupt soil and wildlife when you bury lines.”

Towers are “preferred” only by companies that think they can save money by erecting them. And of course any disruption to soil or wildlife from burying a line would be inconsequential compared with defiling the north woods’ de facto wilderness, including the White Mountain National Forest, with giant steel towers replete with concrete bases and access roads.

Returning to his area of expertise, Skelton said: “The question comes down to cost and practicality of engineering. And I think we can all agree that if we bring clean, renewable energy into the grid, that’s good for everybody.”

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But just how “clean” and “renewable” is Hydro-Quebec energy? For one thing, the company’s sprawling reservoirs leach mercury from the soil, poisoning people and wildlife. For another, they destroy rich carbon sinks even as they spew greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide and methane from decaying vegetation. According to a study commissioned by the Conservation Law Foundation, the 173-square miles of reservoirs on the Romaine River needed to feed the Northern Pass will, in their early years, belch more greenhouse gases per unit of power than a gas-fired plant. And the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency reports that the flooding of the Romaine valley alone will cause “loss of breeding habitat for approximately 97,000 pairs of forest birds.”

Canada’s first nations have never agreed that power from their ruined rivers and drowned woods is “clean” and “renewable” or that it is “good for everybody.” Threatened by proposed dams on the Great Whale River in the early 1990s, the Cree Indians dubbed Hydro-Quebec energy “environmental racism” and urged American politicians to boycott the project, which would have flooded of an area the size of New Hampshire. In 1992 they convinced then Governor Mario Cuomo of New York to void the state’s $17 billion contract with Hydro-Quebec. Two years later New York voided a second contract; and the Great Whale project died.

But elsewhere in the province Hydro-Quebec has flooded about seven million acres and dammed all but two of its 17 biggest rivers. The Romaine is the latest victim, but three of the four planned dams are not yet built. One of Canada’s longest and wildest rivers, the Romaine rises in a rich boreal forest-wetland complex along the Quebec-Labrador border and flows 311 miles to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve and Gulf of St. Lawrence. It sustains Atlantic salmon, landlocked salmon, brook trout, and Arctic char, all dependent on cool, oxygenated current. Writing in the Forest Society’s Forest Notes, Tripp Burwell and Christian Woodard quote Innu poet Rita Mestokosho about the planned death of the Romaine: “It will destroy our culture…. It will destroy our medicinal plants, it will poison the animals, it will pollute the air we breathe.”

Much of the Romaine and 20 of its tributaries will be converted to stagnant deadwater by 2020 -- if Hydro-Quebec finds adequate U.S. markets. But with New Hampshire’s stance the destruction of the Romaine system is by no means assured. “For electricity the international border is like a wall,” says the Conservation Law Foundation’s Chris Courchesne. “There are only a certain number of doors. Every time you open one, that’s another way Hydro-Quebec can get its power to New England.”

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Among the promo Michael Skelton plied me with was an op-ed entitled “Forest Society’s Priorities are Blowin’ in the Wind” and charging that the society had “spent millions buying land in hopes of killing the Northern Pass project.” The second charge is true enough. But the “priorities” of the highly conservative, 113-year-old outfit are anchored in granite. In fact, some greens don’t like the society because, along with environmental advocacy, education, and land protection, its mission includes practicing and promoting sustainable logging. In the White Mountain National Forest, which it helped create in 1911, it has supported both wilderness designation and timber sales.

At Forest Society headquarters in Concord, the state capitol, I met with president/forester Jane Difley. The building is itself a statement against redundant energy sprawl and America’s eat-anything-you-want energy diet. A berm insulates the north side. Windows are placed for maximum light and glazed to conserve heat. Wood chips heat the shaded wings. Solar panels power the main building. Light-fixture designs conserve electricity.

“Northern Pass didn’t talk to the selectmen of the towns,” said Difley. “They didn’t talk to the landowners. They didn’t talk to the state. Everything was done in secret, and they threw money around wantonly. In Stewartstown they spent $4 million on 20 acres that normally would have sold for something like $500 an acre. We had volunteers camped out at the Registry of Deeds; and every time a transaction went through we’d put it on a map so we could see where they were going. When we blocked the route in a bunch of places Northern Pass went to the AG’s office and claimed we couldn’t buy conservation easements without paying full price. When that hit the presses people were outraged because they knew they had a right to sell easements to who they pleased for what they pleased. It was great for us. Every time Northern Pass opened its mouth people sent us money.”

Northern Pass proclaims it can legally run its line across the Society’s 1,400-acre Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, 140 miles north of Concord, by erecting its metal towers beside an old PSNH line strung between low, wooden poles. But the society points out that granting a third party access to a right-of-way acquired by ratepayers for that party’s private transmission line is “an unreasonable use not within the scope or expectation of the landowners when the right-of-way was granted decades ago.”

The Rocks Estate was given to the society in 1978 by the grandchildren of John Jacob Glessner, founder of International Harvester, on condition it continued to be protected and farmed. The current crop is Christmas trees, and the cutting rotation has brought a profusion of bobolinks, killdeer, and bluebirds. But the threat here is not so much bird loss as dollar loss to the local economy. The estate is a huge regional draw. People come here from all over the East to admire and photograph the White Mountains, to watch birds, to hike, and to attend educational programs in wildlife, forestry, maple sugaring, and history of the estate.

With estate manager Nigel Manley I stood on a terrace, a popular spot for weddings, that overlooks the proposed route of the Northern Pass and offers arguably the state’s most spectacular view of the Presidential Range. In front of us Dalton Ridge and Twin Mountain rose white and gray. Mount Washington on the right and Mount Jefferson on the left seemed almost touchable. And though the clear, frigid air we could make out jagged peaks in Vermont. “The Northern Pass line would absolutely destroy this viewshed,” declared Manley. “It would be much less of an issue if they buried it.”

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As I drove north the signs excoriating the Northern Pass became increasingly abundant and explicit. Nowhere is a warm welcome (or any welcome) less likely for a foreign-government entity that pops up on U.S. soil, secretly buys up private property, and then tells Americans what needs to be done with and to their land.

In Stewartstown I dropped in on Lynne Placey, a widowed piano teacher who lives under Hardscrabble Ridge. “Among the joys of living here are our birds,” she said. “One day my grandson took a walk up back. Later he said, ‘Grandma, I could see the blue sky through the canopy. The only sound was wind in the trees and birds singing. And all I could think of was people who live in the city are never going to experience this; and we don’t want it ruined.’ I thought that was pretty insightful for a boy of 14.”I

But not all Lynne Placey’s relatives think like her grandson. “Northern Pass offered me money for my land via my nephew,” she continued. “That’s how they do it. He came here and said: ‘I’ve just sold my land to Northern Pass for half a million dollars. They’d like to buy yours; and if you sell it, you’ll be set financially for life.’ I turned him down. My two nieces sold out, too. It just breaks my heart to see these kids toss away the Placey land; it has created hard feelings in the family.”

Squarely in the path of the original Northern Pass route was the dairy farm of Rod McAllaster, also of Stewartstown. Eventually I located it in remote high country off an iced-over dirt road. When I didn’t find him in the barn I tried to phone him, but there was no cell service. “The bitch in the box,” as my wife calls our GPS, had been confused and petulant through most of Coos County. Now she insisted that McAllaster’s house was half a mile up a steep slope that presently disgorged five snowmobilers. Maybe this time she was right, and maybe Jack Savage hadn’t been speaking figuratively when he warned me that McAllaster’s driveway was “basically a snowmobile trail.” So I switched to four-wheel drive and plowed ahead.

At last I could see a white house. But 50 yards downslope I got stuck and, in the process of blasting out, spooked 50 heifers into the wrong field. The hassle was almost worth it (at least for me) because I acquired great views of Dixville Notch and Mount Washington.

An hour later, after I’d backed all the way down to the barn, I found that McAllaster had been in it all along. He hadn’t heard me yelling because he’d been fixing a major water leak. The house I’d seen on the hill is the old Hiram Flanders homestead in which Rod’s grandfather’s uncle was born three years before the Civil War. Milking operations started on the farm in 1900. The grandfather took over for the uncle. Rod’s father and Rod’s uncle took over for the grandfather. Rod took over for them. And Rod hopes his son, Paul, will take over for him.

Cows licked my back, butt, and legs as I interviewed Rod McAllaster in his warm, fragrant barn. “At first Northern Pass had an individual I knew call me,” he said. “Then they had an individual who’d sold them land come to see me. They did a lot of undercover work. Everything was a secret; and, as I understand it, people who sold out had to sign confidentiality agreements. Other companies are burying power lines. This thing is obsolete before it’s off the drawing board. There are a lot of parts they want to use up, and New Hampshire is one of them. We don’t count.”

McAllaster could have sold the family farm to Northern Pass for $4 million. Instead, he sold (practically gave) a conservation easement to the Forest Society. His words to the Northern Pass realtor, who showed up on his property uninvited and unannounced, are being quoted across the state: “My roots are deeper than your pockets.”

On the long drive back to Taxachusetts I tried and failed to envision a way Northern Pass could prevail (at least with an overground line) against the likes of Placey, McAllaster, the Forest Society, and the prolific sign makers of the live-free-or-die state.

Nailing the traditional mindset now confronting the company was New Hampshire’s logger-farmer-poet Edward French whose Northern Counties was read before the massive legislature shortly after his death in 1986: “…Always the woodpile,/ Always the axe,/ Always the calloused hands./ Always the hate of rules and tax, / Always they fit these stony lands, / Always stubborn but never late, / For they were made of the Granite State.”

--from Audubon magazine