Northern Pass Interveners Settling in for Long Slog

Mar 23, 2016

More than one hundred groups and individuals were granted the official status of “interveners” before the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, which reviews proposed energy projects. These interveners have the right to file motions on the Northern Pass project, a $1.6 billion proposal that would connect hydroelectric dams in Quebec to the New England electricity markets.

They include property owners and towns up and down the route of the proposed route of the power line, environmental groups like the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, a variety of business groups and unions.

Another 29 – like the cities of Manchester and Nashua, and groups representing New England’s ratepayers and power plant owners – were told they didn’t make the cut (but should feel free to submit written comments).

Over the course of the next year, and possibly beyond, these interveners will publicly pick apart the Northern Pass transmission line before the SEC. That committee faces a tricky balancing act: how to ensure that everyone affected by the Northern Pass project gets a say, while still sticking to some kind of a reasonable schedule.

Disgruntled Bundles

Monday and Tuesday, those who made the cut packed into a ballroom in Concord. The proceeding had to be moved here because the unprecedented number of interveners couldn’t fit into a hearing room at the Public Utilities Commission.

And many of them aren’t happy.

“It’s a recipe for chaos to bundle different groups and different areas with that many people and expect them to come out with a unified voice,” says Chris Pastoriza of Easton.

The interveners have been put into groups that supposedly have similar concerns, with the aim of streamlining the public comment process. For instance, the town of Easton has been grouped with towns all the way from Sugar Hill down to Plymouth.

Pastoriza, who opposes the transmission line, believes a group this big won’t be able to agree on everything, which means the concerns of some towns will get silenced.

“I think the SEC is not used to having the public have the voice that they’ve had in this hearing, and they’re not used to opening up their private party to the people that are affected by the project,” she says.

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult experience for everybody,” says Peter Roth, a lawyer with Attorney General’s office whose job is to represent the concerns of the public.

He says while this bundling is fairly standard practice, it’s unusual for the bundles to be so big.

“Here we have in one instance a group that consists of all the abutters between Ashland and Deerfield,” he says, “That’s a lot of towns, a lot of people.”

For its part, Northern Pass believes the SEC got the groups basically right.

“We are also concerned that at this point we are at the outer bounds of the number of parties that a proceeding like this could accommodate, and still really be handled in an orderly and efficient manner,” says Barry Needleman, one of the project’s attorneys, “And so to the extent that this process were to result in a significant number of additional parties being created, that would be of great concern to us.”

Hurry Up Offense Versus Running Out the Clock

Moving the process along is the big reason for bundling all of the interveners into groups.

State law says this whole evaluation should be finished by December, though Roth points out there’s a provision that allows the SEC to extend the process if necessary. “If this case fit within the statutory schedule, it would actually be one of the first cases to ever have done so,” he says.

Northern Pass wants this all to be wrapped up by Christmas, so they can start building next year. Roth’s office has proposed finishing somewhere around the middle of 2017. The project’s most vocal opponent, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, has proposed going until November of 2017.

For the opponents: the longer the better – more delays mean more costs for Northern Pass in consultants and attorneys, and they hope eventually the developers will give up. And if Tuesday’s hearing was any indication – with many present objecting to the large groups they were bundled into – all of these voices clamoring to be heard could mean a long slog.

Kate Hartnett of Deerfield, points out that sometimes multiple bodies from individual towns want to have their own say.

“The interests of the planning board, are different from the conservation commission are different than the select board,” she explains, “Just internally in our one little town of 4,000 people.”

This is not the first complaint opponents have had about this process.

They objected a tour of the proposed route of the project, saying the SEC didn’t stop at some of the spots where the power lines will be most visible.

They objected to the way recent public hearings were carried out, and said moderators did a poor job of paraphrasing questions and didn’t follow up when officials from Eversource – the company behind Northern Pass -- didn’t answer questions directly.

To the project’s spokesman, Martin Murray, it’s no surprise the process isn’t satisfying everyone. “I think what the SEC is trying to do is paying attention to the laws and the rules that are set out to move this process along, and doing the best they can to include everyone,” he says.

And so, this is how it stands: opponents are doing what they can to run out the clock, and Northern Pass is pushing to hurry things up… and in the middle, a committee of seven government appointees who in the coming weeks will set a timeline.

**An earlier version of this post said that there were 161 applicants who had been granted intervener status in the Northern Pass proceeding. That was the number who applied to be interveners, the number granted that status is lower**