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Northern Pass seen as focus of five bills

CONCORD – Grass-roots level opponents of the Northern Pass power line transmission project were conspicuous by their absence Tuesday at hearings on legislation with a potential impact on the project.

The House Committee on Science, Technology and Energy held hearings on five measures with the potential to slow or kill the project.

Northern Pass Transmission LLC, a project headed by Northeast Utilities, wants to construct a 190-mile, high-voltage transmission line to bring power produced by HydroQuebec in Canada from Pittsburg to Deerfield for connection to the New England electrical power grid.

The consortium has been unable to apply for the needed governmental approvals because it doesn’t yet have ownership or easements on land needed for the power lines.

Opponents of Northern Pass tried to nudge the debate away from give-and-take over that specific project Tuesday, recasting the proposals some viewed as aimed at Northern Pass as “technical changes” needed in the state’s rules for approving electrical transmission facilities.

Environmental concerns

The hearing drew fewer than 100 people, many of them lobbyists or union members who back the project.

A single spokesperson testified on behalf of a range of conservation groups. Susan Arnold, of the Appalachian Mountain Club, told the committee she spoke for a number of conservation groups, including the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, the Conservation Law Foundation, Conservation New Hampshire and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which have opposed the transmission line.

Arnold never mentioned Northern Pass in her remarks, focusing on what she suggested was an immediate need for comprehensive legislation regarding energy projects in the state.

“Recently we have seen a number of proposals for new energy facilities, specifically wind farms and transmission lines, that will have an important and lasting impact on our state,” Arnold said. “The number of bills before the committee testifies to the public concern.”

Arnold said the Legislature should act quickly on a bill giving the SEC a broad range of authority in considering proposed facilities.

Five bills

Legislation before the committee Tuesday included a one-year moratorium on authorizing new electric transmission facilities, a requirement for elaborate economic impact studies, requirements for burying the transmission lines, and a requirement that the power lines run only along existing transportation rights-of-way, chiefly highways and railroad beds.

Current state law establishes a Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) to grant permits for new energy facilities. The law requires the SEC to seek “a balance between the environment and the need for new energy facilities” while avoiding “undue delay in the construction of needed facilities.”

Arnold said a bill should be crafted to give the SEC authority to regulate transmission lines based on “public benefit, impact, regional and state energy needs, public participation and transparency and the impact on municipalities during the approval process.”

She called on the committee to draft a bill to do all of that at once, and to draft it quickly.

“This shouldn’t happen piecemeal; we would really encourage the committee to put together a single vehicle to address all of these many issues,” Arnold said. “We believe the legislation … should move forward this year.”

While not mentioning Northern Pass, Arnold said new legislation should “reflect a more rigorous review of transmission facilities that are elective by design – that are not required for system reliability.”

Supporters speak

Supporters of the transmission line were more direct. A contingent from Franklin, where a converter station would be built for the project, included the city manager, a former mayor and the president of the local bank.

Town Manager Elizabeth Dragon challenged the committee to view the bills as being aimed squarely at Northern Pass.

“Unlike the previous speakers, I believe most of these bills are crafted to stall or kill – let’s just say the name – Northern Pass,” Dragon said. “Most of these bills, if not all of them, were designed to create roadblocks to the Northern Pass project.”

Several business groups also spoke in opposition to the legislation, as did members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents line workers.

One of the bills before the committee would require burying high-voltage transmission lines. It was sponsored by Rep. Laurence Rappaport, R-Colebrook, who argued that overhead lines will cost people in the North Country some of their net worth.

“Transmission lines are a theft of homeowner value,” Rappaport said. “If transmission towers impede my view, my holdings are reduced in value and I receive absolutely no compensation.”

Northern Pass requires a variety of federal environmental and energy permits and licenses, state Site Evaluation Committee approval of its route and equipment, and formal designation as a public utility.

Michael Licata, vice president for public policy at the Business and Industry Association, which represents businesses in the state, said the intent of the bills heard Tuesday was clear.

“This bill would have long-range and wide impacts, but it certainly appears that it is focused on one specific project,” he said.