Battle Lines | The Northern Pass Energy Project
Finally, I posed the question I’d wanted to ask from the beginning but had thus far lacked the courage to voice, in part because it wasn’t about opportunity or growth. It wasn’t about the people and the city of Franklin; in a sense, it wasn’t even about The Northern Pass.
“Is it uncomfortable,” I asked the mayor, “being the proponent of a project that has met with near-unanimous opposition elsewhere in the state?” Merrifield paused a bit. He looked tired. He looked as though he wanted to choose his words carefully. “You can understand,” he said, “why people are opposing the project.”
To understand why Mayor Merrifield chose his words carefully, you need to know a bit more about The Northern Pass. More specifically, you need to know that Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), the utility that has partnered with Hydro-Québec, the province’s government-owned electrical generation entity, to bring power into the state, doesn’t hold easements on the northernmost 40 miles of the 180 miles it would traverse. You need to know that the transmission lines would be carried by nearly 1,200 towers, ranging in height from 80 to 135 feet tall.
You need to know that most, if not all, of the electricity delivered via The Northern Pass wouldn’t remain in New Hampshire but would instead be distributed into the region-wide electricity market. You need to know that New Hampshire is already a net exporter of electricity, producing about twice what its 1.3 million residents use, thanks in large part to the Seabrook nuclear-power plant. You need to know that The Northern Pass is a private, for-profit partnership among Hydro-Québec, NSTAR, and Northeast Utilities, PSNH’s parent company, which estimate that the project will generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue over the next 40 years.
This arrangement is unique to the utility market; most transmission lines are actually paid for by consumers, as a surcharge on their monthly bills. It means that Hydro-Québec and PSNH won’t be compelled to share the line with other producers. Opponents argue that this arrangement would give the two companies a virtual stranglehold on the region’s renewable-power supply, although there’s no shortage of debate regarding whether Hydro-Québec should even qualify as a “renewable” energy source, in large part because its infrastructure includes dams and flood zones necessary to create its reservoirs of water. In fact, under current law, Hydro-Québec doesn’t meet the standards necessary to conform to New Hampshire’s renewable-energy mandate.
Finally, and this is arguably the issue most responsible for the charged emotions surrounding the response to the proposal, you need to know that the term “eminent domain” has entered the conversation. Indeed, it now seems all but certain that if The Northern Pass is going to happen, it won’t happen via the voluntary sale of multiple rights of way across the 187 privately held properties that make up those 40 miles. Already, many landowners have denied access to their land to anyone associated with the project. Already, they’ve drawn an unwavering line in the rocky New Hampshire soil: This is our land. We will not give it up. Which is to say, it now seems all but certain that if The Northern Pass is going to happen, it will happen only by force.
Nearly two months after my visit to Franklin, I again crossed the Vermont/New Hampshire border. But this time, rather than hanging a right-hand turn toward the south, I spun the steering wheel to the left. My destination was the town of Pittsburg, a community of approximately 850 nestled in the forests of the state’s northernmost tier.
“The North Country” is how locals refer to the region. It’s an idiom that appeals to my fondness for remote, frontier-like places. But the North Country extends as far south as Franconia, which from Pittsburg is a nearly two-hour drive over twisting, potholed secondary roads; it feels like the sort of place the northern town’s residents head for when, in May, they’re still buried under two feet of slush and want to work on their tans. Indeed, on this May visit, snow still lay in the north-facing ditches along U.S. Route 3, which doubles as Pittsburg’s Main Street.
I’d come north for two reasons. One, I wanted to attend an informational meeting intended for the region’s landowners and featuring five speakers, all opposed to The Northern Pass. And two, I wanted to meet John Amey, a dairy farmer and lifelong resident of Pittsburg, who was spearheading regional opposition forces.
The meeting was held at the headquarters of the Pittsburg Ridge Runners snowmobile club, which boasts a membership of 3,400. To put this in perspective, there are about 2,550 more members in the town’s eponymous snowmobile club than there are actual residents of the town. The walls of the clubhouse’s meeting room were decorated with large action photos of snowmobiles and riders in pristine wilderness settings; the floor was covered with tables and folding chairs, about half of which were occupied. Most of the occupants wore orange, adopted by the opposition as the official protest color. On my way to the meeting, I’d gotten my directions mixed up (okay, I was lost); when two orange-tape-festooned pickups approached from the opposite direction, I wheeled around and followed them to the clubhouse parking lot.
For nearly three hours, the quintet delivered a barrage of numbers, theories, and emotional pleas, all rooted in the core belief that The Northern Pass is a very bad idea. They attacked claims that Hydro-Québec’s electricity is environmentally friendly, noting that a hydro project of such scale and design wouldn’t pass regulatory muster in the United States. They pointed out that at a purported seven million acres, the flood zone created by Hydro-Québec is larger than the entire state of New Hampshire. They noted that according to a paper released by the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, the Northern Pass transmission line “has not been identified by ISO New England [the independent nonprofit that oversees and coordinates the region’s wholesale electricity market] as one required to meet a reliability need.”
They argued that the projected $1.1 billion cost of the venture could be better spent–perhaps on domestic energy ventures, or on conservation efforts that would reduce demand by as much or more than The Northern Pass would generate. Furthermore, they said, The Northern Pass is a private, for-profit entity that stands to generate more than $50 billion in revenue for Hydro-Québec over its 40-year lifespan.
“This project did not arise out of a desire to meet a public need,” noted Jack Savage, who’d come to Pittsburg to represent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “It arose out of a desire to make private profits.” The speakers stated the oft-repeated fact that New Hampshire is already a net exporter of electricity.
Finally, they asserted that The Northern Pass’s claims of a $25 million annual tax-revenue windfall and more than 1,000 temporary construction jobs were examples of half-done math. Jim Dannis, who owns property upon which PSNH already has a right of way, held up a copy of a recent appraisal for which he’d contracted. On one 12-acre building lot, the appraiser estimated a 92-percent reduction in value if the transmission lines were installed.
“Do you think I’m going to take a 92 percent hit and not demand a tax abatement?” Dannis asked. It was a rhetorical question, so no one answered. “Imagine that scenario all along the route. This project is going to mean less tax revenue, not more.” And, of course, less revenue would lead to economic contraction, which in turn would cost jobs.