The Conservation Law Foundation says the U.S. Department of Energy made a serious mistake by again allowing Northern Pass to help pick the consultants responsible for the crucial environmental impact statement.
“The concern is that the integrity of the federal review is at great risk,” Christophe Courchesne, a lawyer at the foundation, said Wednesday.
The DOE did not respond to the issue raised by the foundation.
Instead, late on Wednesday, Niketa Kumar, a spokeswoman for DOE, send an e-mail saying "The Department of Energy takes very seriously its responsibility to conduct a thorough and open review of Northern Pass’s permit application" and it will take all comments seriously.
Michael Skelton, a spokesman for Northern Pass, said the foundation was simply trying to stop the project and the arrival of clean energy by delaying the federal process.
“They are entitled to their opinion. We are focused on doing the work necessary to file an amended application with the Department of Energy by the end of this year,” Skelton said.
It is the Department of Energy’s job to decide whether the Northern Pass project should be allowed to bring hydro-electric power in from Canada.
A key part of that is an environmental impact statement to be prepared by a consultant hired by the Department of Energy.
Courchesne says by using a Freedom-of-Information request the foundation obtained a series of emails between the federal agency and a lawyer for Northern Pass.
He says they show “Northern Pass handpicked the new team that is going to be drafting the environmental impact statement.”
One email is dated July 2011 and it addressed to DOE officials. It is from Northern Pass lawyer Mary Anne Sullivan, who previously was the top lawyer at the Department of Energy. It says:
“Northern Pass, after a thorough search, would like to recommend to DOE a team of SE Group, Ecology & Environment Inc., and Lucy Swartz to serve as the NEPA contractor for the Northern Pass Transmission Project. Taken together, we believe the team has strong, highly relevant expertise, and we believe they will work very effectively together as a team.”
Courchesne says federal regulations are clear in stating that the contractor must be chosen “solely by the lead agency.”
“What it did here was outsource its obligation to Northern Pass and it appears that DOE has very little involvement in the process and ultimately rubber stamped the consultant that Northern Pass selected,” Courchesne said.
Northern Pass also suggested the language for the contract.
There are three consultants.
One is SE Group, which has an office in Burlington, Vermont.
The second is Ecology and Environment, which has its headquarters in Lancaster, New York.
The third is Lucinda Low Swartz of Kensington, Maryland.
Northern Pass lawyer Sullivan assured the DOE that the firms had not done any business with the utility so there was no conflict-of-interest.
But Courchesne contends that’s not true because the companies owe their jobs to Northern Pass.
And, that undermines public confidence in the process, he says.
In a letter to the DOE he argues the agency should replace the current consultants with new firms chosen in the proper way.
Northern Pass lawyer Sullivan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If the DOE removes the three firms and hires someone else it would be the third time new consultants have been hired for the job.
Originally Northern Pass recommended Normandeau Associates of Bedford.
DOE hired them.
But later it turned out Normandeau was doing other work for the utility company.
After assertions of a conflict-of-interest were raised Normandeau withdrew early in 2011.