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Utility under pressure

NStar filed notice of its intent to merge with Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities nine months ago. So why did the Patrick administration wait until now to seek a complicated rate review case, which could drag on just long enough to quash the deal?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. thinks he knows – he spelled it out in an oped in The Wall Street Journal this week. The administration wants NStar [NST] to get on the Cape Wind bandwagon, he argues.

Now, you can accuse the tree-hugging Kennedy of being a situational environmentalist with a gazillion-dollar view to protect, but frankly the administration has given him and the rest of us cause to wonder.

At the request of Patrick’s energy advisers, the Department of Public Utilities already agreed to hold this merger to a higher standard of review – requiring that it provide a “net benefit” to the public instead of the usual “no net harm.”

And how might an energy company ensure said “net benefit?” Perhaps by agreeing to buy energy from a huge wind farm with spare energy to sell?

If the merger isn’t finalized by April 2012, the two energy companies could walk away from the deal. But now the Division of Energy Resources is asking the utility regulators to open a formal rate review, which could stretch beyond that deadline.

NStar has argued that the rate review should be separated from the merger, and if the Patrick administration wants to prove it has no ulterior motive here, it will agree.