Northern Pass: As Regulatory Process Picks Up So Does The PR War

Apr 29, 2015

Signs against Northern Pass have been posted on fields and lawns for years but now the debate is picking up.
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

The approval process for Northern Pass is ramping up and so is the battle for public support.

Last month Northern Pass and its parent company Eversource Energy donated $3 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to be used on conservation projects in New Hampshire.

But there’s some controversy over it now and NHPR’s Chris Jensen has been looking into the donation and why some conservation groups are reluctant to accept the money.  He joins us now.

Peter Biello: Hi Chris, remind us what this donation is.

Chris: Well, Northern Pass and its parent Eversource Energy donated $3 million. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation said it was the largest donation it has received from any corporation in New England. So, that’s pretty impressive.

At the time a top Eversource official said the donation shows Northern Pass, can “co-exist – in fact has to coexist – with a natural and healthy environment.”

The deal is called Partners for New Hampshire’s Fish and Wildlife, but the term "partners" definitely angered some conservation groups.

And Northern Pass’ news release can be read to describe New Hampshire Fish and Game, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and Trout Unlimited as “partners” with Northern Pass.

They said they are not partners with Northern Pass.

The news release also reported that the Connecticut River Watershed Council “will use a $180,000 grant” for a conservation project.

But only $18,000 of that money is coming from Eversource and Northern Pass, the foundation confirmed.

The watershed council, incidentally, says it will take Northern Pass funds for its projects and that will not change its position that the entire Northern Pass transmission line should be buried.

But the overall plan is that the foundation will distribute the money to conservation groups. So, Eversource wouldn’t be deciding who got money.

Peter: What was the reaction to that?

Chris: Rather predictably Northern Pass opponents said it was a public-relations ploy and the utility was trying to buy off conservation groups.

They also noted the timing. Within the next month or so the U.S. Department of Energy will be releasing a draft Environmental Impact Statement looking at Northern Pass.  And shortly after that Northern Pass is expected to seek approval by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee.

But Northern Pass said they gave the money to the foundation to distribute so there can’t be a conflict of interest and they were just trying to do something good.

Peter: So far some money has been distributed including about $50,000 to improve habitat for animals including cottontails.

But we know some groups have concerns. Who are they?

Chris: Trout Unlimited says enough of its members oppose Northern Pass that it will not seek any of the funds donated to the foundation.

Glenn Normandeau, who heads up New Hampshire Fish and Game, said there hasn’t yet been any discussion in his department about seeking those funds.

And, he added, given the controversy over the money coming from Northern Pass “we have no intention of reaching into the shark tank anytime soon.”

He also said the possibility of that money being available would have no influence on his department’s evaluation of the Northern Pass project which would be based on a scientific analysis.

Meanwhile, an official with the state Audubon Society said the staff would recommend not seeking any of the funds although the board hasn’t made a formal decision.

It’s not clear how other conservation groups may feel but a spokesman for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation said no group has yet said it will not seek funds.

Peter: So, what does Northern Pass say about this?

Chris: Northern Pass and Eversource spokesman Martin Murray contends opponents of the project are trying to bully groups not to take the money.

He also said the $3 million donation was an effort to benefit conservation in the state and it is frustrating and disappointing to see opposition to something that would help conservation efforts.

He also said there was no intention to mislead anyone.

He said the groups described as “partners” are partners in conservation efforts being funded through National Fish and Wildlife.

He said there was no intention to portray them as allied with Northern Pass.

He also said there was no effort to mislead anyone about the $180,000 donation.

Host: So, is there a bigger issue here?

Chris: I think so. After years of delay the regulatory process for Northern Pass is finally moving ahead and so the public-relations fight is picking up.

Earlier this month Northern Pass gave money to help expand cell coverage in the North Country. Then shortly after that $200,000 from Northern Pass was made available to businesses in Coos to help create or maintain jobs.

On the other side opponents released a video urging the lines be buried in Concord basically because they would look just awful.

And, Northern Pass fired back saying that video was doctored in at least one place for dramatic effect which turns out to be a valid complaint.

Peter: So, it looks like we can expect more of this as the year goes on.

Chris:  Yes, absolutely.  And we recently got a glimpse of some of the behind the scenes PR workings of Northern Pass.  A hired consultant named Seth Cargiuolo posted a report on the project on his website.  He was working for Saint Consulting.  Saint Consulting describes itself as “winning controversial local, state and federal land use campaigns since 1983.”

The document has since been removed.  But in it Cargiuolo talked about how his team at Saint helped drum up social media support to blunt attacks from opponents of Northern Pass as well as generating letters of support to state legislators and federal officials.

That included using what the report called "a customized, rotating-content support letter generator to put pressure on state legislators on multiple issues."

Neither Cargiuolo nor officials at Saint Consulting could be reached for comment.

An official at Northern Pass said the company had worked with Saint Consulting on social media out reach but he declined to answer any additional questions.

Peter:  Well, as you said this is just the beginning as the approval process keeps unfolding. Thanks, Chris.

Chris:  You’re welcome.

Host:  That’s Chris Jensen, he’s one of NHPR’s North Country reporters.