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Deadline looms for Northern Pass route

With only three working days left in 2012, Northeast Utilities is running out of time to unveil a new path for the Northern Pass before year’s end.

“We don’t have an update right now, as we’ve been focused on storm preparation,” Northern Pass spokesman Michael J. Skelton wrote in an email Wednesday. “The project team is preparing an update on the route that will be ready soon.”

Executives with Northeast Utilities, parent company of Public Service Company of New Hampshire, told investors earlier in the year that significant progress has been made working with landowners to acquire a route for the 1,200-megawatt transmission lines that would deliver hydroelectric power from Quebec into the New England power grid, via New Hampshire.

In a statement released in August, Northeast Utilities executives told financial analysts to expect a filing with federal regulators by the end of the year. If not, the targeted completion date of 2016 would have to be moved up to 2017, according to Leon Olivier, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Northeast Utilities.

“Things are looking very good,” project spokesman Martin Murray of PSNH said at the time. “We’ve made significant progress in acquiring the land or easements we need to propose a new route. The finish line is in sight.”

Land purchases

In what some describe as a high-stakes game of chess, the final weeks of the year have been marked by several land purchases or easements along the proposed route by Northeast Utilities and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which opposes the project.

The forest society announced Dec. 14 that it had acquired a conservation easement on 530 acres owned by Green Acre Woodlands, a registered tree farm in Stewartstown. Around the same time, the conservation group acquired another set of easements involving several North Country parcels along Route 145 in Clarksville, adding up to approximately 50 acres.

Renewable Properties Inc., representing Northern Pass interests, recently closed on approximately 226 acres in Clarksville, owned by brothers Alfred LeBlanc III and Jonathan LeBlanc, for $1.6 million, according to records at the Coos County Registry of Deeds. Clarksville Selectman Al LeBlanc, father of the two property owners and previous owner of the property, later resigned his position as a Clarksville selectman.

John Harrigan, a former Coos County newspaper editor and publisher and now a columnist for the New Hampshire Sunday News and Salmon Press, is part of a group leading citizen opposition to the Northern Pass and closely monitoring property transactions at the registry.

Harrigan sold his interests in the Colebrook News and Sentinel and Coos County Democrat in 2002. “Our message is, do not accept at face value this baloney about Northern Pass being a done deal,” he said.

He said the sale of the LeBlanc property was not unexpected. “I was not surprised,” he said, “but I was disappointed. However, we never as a group criticize anyone for selling. Our position is, we don’t know what the circumstances are within someone’s household or family, so we don’t feel it’s right for us to criticize anyone. We just say we are disappointed, and we wish it hadn’t happened, but we move on to the next challenge.”

Risky announcement?

Jack Savage, vice president for communication at the forest society, said the $1.6 million purchase does not close the gaps Northern Pass still faces in cobbling together a complete route through the 40 miles of North Country needed to complete the project. Opponents estimate that Northern Pass through its real estate subsidiaries has spent nearly $22 million in land acquisition.

“They still cannot cross the Connecticut River at Route 3, thanks to the land that we own,” Savage said. “They are still a very, very long way from completing any sort of route up there, and we feel very confident that they are not going to be able to do it. We are more confident than at any time in the past two years.”

The Dupont Group, a well-connected lobbying firm in Concord led by former state Senate President Ed Dupont, is also skeptical about the idea that Northeast Utilities and its partners are close to a route for the Northern Pass.

In a confidential memo to energy clients, obtained by the Union Leader, Jim Monahan, vice president of the Dupont Group, writes that Northern Pass developers will “show a route drawn on a map,” but “they will not have control over all the required properties.”

Dupont Group energy clients include the New England Power Generators Association, a group of independent energy suppliers, many of whom compete with PSNH.

In his memo, dated Dec. 10, Monahan suggests that a premature route announcement is risky for Northern Pass developers.

“The intent of the anticipated announcement in December is to satisfy expectations in the investor community, and perhaps regain some momentum for the troubled project,” Monahan wrote. “However, stepping forward with an incomplete route and fragile regulatory strategy will expose many of the project’s emerging weaknesses. The (possibility) that the announcement will raise more questions than it answers is a significant risk for the project.”