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Lori Witherell: Siting Board members have their own conflicts

It has been widely reported in the media that Avangrid Renewables (a subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables) has formally challenged the suitability of Gary Snell to serve as an ad hoc member of the New York Siting Board in consideration of Avangrid’s North Ridge energy wind project.

Avangrid Renewables is proposing to build the North Ridge Wind Farm in the towns of Hopkinton and Parishville in St. Lawrence County.

Under state law, it is the Siting Board that is empowered, after a lengthy review process, to grant or withhold final approval authorizing construction of large-scale energy generation projects – including North Ridge. The Siting Board is composed of five permanent members and two ad hoc members.

The two ad hoc members are to be residents of the community (generally accepted as being from within the county) where the project is proposed to be built. Mr. Snell is one of the two ad hoc members selected at the recommendation of local officials in his community. He also chairs Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation, which opposes the wind project.

Avangrid Renewables is displeased by the selection of Mr. Snell (a retired school superintendent). Mr. Snell, the company argues, is prejudiced against the project proposal because he has publicly raised questions about the suitability of the project for his community and because he has questioned the value proposition of granting property and school tax breaks for the benefit of Avangrid. The company has chosen to characterize Mr. Snell’s caution about the project as a bias against it and, therefore, a conflict of interest that should render him ineligible to serve.

In considering the entire makeup of the Siting Board, it is astonishing that Avangrid should single out Mr. Snell for having a bias or predisposition in this matter. It’s temerity is over the top. The evident biases in the makeup of the Siting Board are far more obvious and far more troubling with the five permanent members. Where to begin?

The permanent members are the heads of three state agencies – the Department of Public Service, Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health – and two state quasi-governmental authorities – Empire State Development and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. All of the five permanent members are appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and serve at his pleasure.

The governor has been an outspoken proponent of renewable energy. He has set a mandatory goal for New York to reach 50 percent of its electric power generation from non-carbon emitting sources by 2030. One of his first major legislative accomplishments was to sign into law Article 10, which removed authority from local governments for the permitting of large energy generation projects and created a centralized, state-controlled process for permitting such projects, including the creation and makeup of the Siting Board.

In a very real way, the Siting Board is the governor’s siting board. The five permanent members all work for him.

How could Avangrid possibly claim that these five permanent members are any less biased than Mr. Snell? Two of the Siting Board members are heads of agencies (the DPS and NYSERDA) that have very direct roles in promoting and financing the deployment of large-scale renewable energy projects in New York. Accomplishing that deployment is at the core of their official governmental duty. NYSERDA, in particular, is an unabashed and aggressive advocacy organization for more renewable energy in New York.

NYSERDA’s website makes it plain. It claims that its key purpose is to “promote … the use of renewable energy resources” and to “work with … developers” as “partners with them.” NYSERDA sees itself as a partner with Avangrid Renewables. Any doubt where they are coming from? Any doubt that there is not an institutional bias and a personal bias on the part of the organization’s head (who also serves as the governor’s overall energy czar) in favor of seeing a renewable energy project being built?

Does this necessarily mean that any of these permanent Siting Board members would unquestioningly vote in favor of the permitting of any large-scale renewable energy project? No, perhaps not. But it sure is going to be the way they will lean unless there is something terribly defective about the developer’s application.

In any case, there can be no question that each of these permanent Siting Board members has a bias by any understanding of the term. These presumed biases are so glaring that they cannot hope to be hidden or denied. There can be no acceptable explanation of them that would pass the red face test.

And against this troublesome and problematic backdrop, Avangrid raises ethical questions about Gary Snell? Mr. Snell is nothing more than a vigilant citizen. He has been calm and circumspect in anything he has said. This should tell us all a lot about Avangrid and its lawyers.

It’s always best to know with whom you’re dealing. Avangrid’s actions have let us know this much better than it probably would have liked.

Lori Witherell, a Parishville resident, is a member of Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation.