On April 13th at 9 a.m. the adjudicatory hearings to determine whether the Site Evaluation Committee will grant Northern Pass a certificate to site 192 miles of giant high-voltage towers and lines across New Hampshire will begin.
This will be the trial of the century, in part because it is the largest proceeding to ever be heard before the SEC, with more than 100 parties now involved, all to consider the largest project to be brought before the SEC involving the largest number of environmental impacts ever. However, most importantly, it will be the trial of the century because it will determine the future character of our state
Operating as a quasi-judicial body, the SEC has scheduled 26 trial days between tomorrow and the end of July where witnesses for and against Northern Pass will testify under oath and be subject to cross-examination.
I’ll give you a quick rundown of what to expect and the active role you can play.
This is a classic David and Goliath fight. On one side are the massive for-profit corporate applicants, Northern Pass Transmission LLC and PSNH d/b/a Eversource NH, and a few intervenors who support their cause.
On the other side is a large coalition deeply concerned about the impact of Northern Pass on our state - conservation organizations such as the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Appalachian Mountain Club; many of the municipalities that Northern Pass will slice throughand conservation commissions in those towns; and scores of individuals who own property that either abuts the proposed transmission route or that the route will cut across.
Most of the municipalities are very small towns whose residents have voted to bear the cost of mounting a legal case against Northern Pass. Many of the individual intervenors can’t afford attorneys and expert witnesses and are appearing pro se.
Northern Pass clearly fears these pro se intervenors, going so far as moving to eliminate an elderly couple because they didn’t appear for a technical session.
One party to the Northern Pass hearings observers should keep their eye on is the Counsel for the Public, Senior Assistant Attorney General Peter Roth. His role is to represent the public interest, objectively ferret out the truth and present the relevant facts to the SEC.
The Test Northern Pass Must Satisfy
Northern Pass will have the burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that 1) the company has the financial capability to build and operate this $1.6 billion project 2) the transmission towers and lines “will not have an unreasonable adverse effect” on the landscape, historic sites or the environment; 3) it will not “unduly interfere” with the development of the region it impacts; and 4) it will serve the public interest. The exact language of the four-part test Northern Pass must meet is set out in RSA 162-H16, IV.
While all of these factors are important in the SEC’s decision making, the conflicting statements from Eversource and Hydro-Quebec about who is responsible for paying for the construction of Northern Pass suggest that the question of whether Northern Pass can prove it has the financial capability to build the $1.6 billion project will be a major and determinative factor in this case. Remember, Hydro-Quebec said just a few weeks ago that it would not pay ‘a penny’ for any portion of Northern Pass in the US, despite years of Eversource’s representations to the contrary.
The First Day
Bill Quinlan, the president and COO of Eversource NH, which is partnered with its Eversource sister company, Northern Pass, in this project and the SEC application, will be the first witness. Expect his testimony to focus on the Forward NH Plan, a $200 million pot of money Northern Pass plans to sprinkle around the state. The Forest Society contends that the $200 million pot was created to manufacture an argument that there is a public benefit from Northern Pass because there is no inherent public benefit to the project: “These `unnatural benefits’ are offered by the Applicants to sweeten the proposal and do not naturally flow from the construction and operation of the project itself. By simply offering these sweeteners, the statute does not allow the Applicants to transform them into benefits of the project or ‘regarding the potential siting or routes of a proposed’ project.”
Seven of the nine members of the SEC have been chosen to serve to serve on the tribunal that will determine whether Northern Pass has met its burden. They are Public Utilities Commission Chair Martin Honigberg, who will serve as the Presiding Officer; PUC Commissioner Kathryn Bailey; the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services or his designee; the Commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development or his designee; the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation or her designee; Public Member Rachel Whitaker of Stark, an assistant professor of environmental science at White Mountains Community College; and Public Member Patricia Weathersby, a lawyer from Rye.
Throughout the four months of this trial you have the right to submit comments to the SEC. It’s easy – you just email your comments to Pamela.Monroe@sec.nh.gov, who is the SEC Administrator. Now is the time to make your voice heard!
To keep up on what’s happening sign up as a Protector of the Granite State at this website, check Protect the Granite State Facebook postings, follow us on Twitter @ProGraniteState and then provide your comments to the SEC online. The future of New Hampshire is at stake!