Battle Lines | The Northern Pass Energy Project
After the meeting, I went to dinner with John Amey, his wife, Cindy-Lou, and a small crew of folks who’d attended the meeting. Amey is 61; he possesses an easy smile, a belly that precedes him, and the charming habit of laughing a bit too long at his own jokes. He carries a sense of relaxed optimism about him, even when discussing The Northern Pass, and even when talk turns to the possibility that the project will be approved. “If it doesn’t go through, I’ve won the fight and gotten all these friends,” he told me, gesturing to the circle of people gathered around the table. “If it does go through, I’ve lost the fight, but I’ve still got all these friends.”
The Ameys own 1,400 acres and milk a small herd of Holstein cows. They live in the house where John grew up, just down the road from the Amey family cemetery and the Amey family schoolhouse. One of The Northern Pass’s alternative routes is visible from their milkhouse door.
It would be easy to assume that the possibility that their view would be radically altered is what drives their opposition. And that does play a part. But it seemed to me that their opposition might be rooted in something less tangible but arguably even more intractable: a life and an ethos that have been forged in connection with the land and their natural surroundings. “I was taught that you don’t put your money into paper; you buy land instead,” Cindy-Lou told me. She was raised in Canada, alongside eight siblings. There were many mouths to feed, and in that day, they were fed primarily from the land upon which they lived.
Talk turned to the sugaring season just passed. Every year, Amey puts out 140 buckets (“Just enough to be annoying,” he told me), hanging them as his father, Holman, taught him: 6 inches to the side of the previous season’s tap hole and 12 inches up or down, a calculation that helps avoid the scar tissue the tree forms in response to being tapped. “For years, I thought that eventually you’d end up right back where you started, and then what would you do?” Amey told us. “But I finally realized that the whole time, the tree’s growing. You never hit the same hole twice!” He laughed a little longer than the anecdote required, then shook his head in amazement, perhaps at nature’s process, or maybe at himself, for taking so long to catch on.
The president and chief operating officer of PSNH is Gary Long, a tall 60-year-old with a receding crop of hair and a wide wedge of a chin. Long belongs to that rare category of people who, for as long as they can remember, have felt compelled to follow a particular career path. For Long, that path has been the transmission of electricity. He’s been at PSNH for 35 years, steadily working his way up the chain of command to his current position, which he fulfills from an expansive corner office in a tastefully renovated brick mill building in Manchester, overlooking the Merrimack River and the churning waters of Amoskeag Falls.
I visited Long in late May. The Merrimack was running hard and fast, fed by record-setting rainfall over the previous weeks. In PSNH’s parking lot, I left my Subaru next to a Hummer and walked a landscaped path to the front door of the office building, which utilizes recycled materials and boasts a 51-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array.
We sat at a conference table in Long’s office. Long and I were across from each other; at the head of the table sat Martin Murray, PSNH’s senior corporate news representative. Murray set out a voice recorder, which I found mildly unsettling. When the person I’m interviewing is recording the conversation for his own purposes, it’s typically not because he likes the sound of my voice.
Perhaps naively, I’d half-expected Long to comport himself in a manner that reflected all the tales of corporate greed and malfeasance I’d heard over the prior months. I imagined him rubbing his palms together as he discussed the potential profits and slamming his fist against the table when the subject of opposition was raised. And while he didn’t quite fit within parameters I’d define as “charming,” he nonetheless expressed his views in language that was both articulate and for the most part respectful of the project’s opponents.
In Long’s view, The Northern Pass isn’t just a good thing for the people of New Hampshire; it’s an opportunity of historic proportions. “I’ve never seen anything this good in my 35 years at PSNH,” he said. “If this doesn’t happen, it’s ‘shame on New Hampshire.'”
But what about the statement that according to ISO New England, The Northern Pass isn’t necessary to bolster supply or reliability?
The problem, Long replied, is that people simply aren’t taking a long enough view. “When people say, ‘We don’t need this for reliability today,’ I agree. Today. But if you follow that logic, we don’t need any renewables. So do we need it today? No. Can we build more natural gas? Yes. But what do we want?”
The issue of what we want, both as a region and as an entire nation, is one that obviously strikes a chord with Long. At numerous points during our conversation, he commented on the general direction of our society and what he perceives as an inability to take sound, decisive action in regard to both electricity generation and, I sensed, broader issues.
“Where are we going? I think it’s a weakness we have as a country right now,” he said at one point. This belief seems to have instilled in him a somewhat coldly pragmatic view of 21st-century America and her people. When the issue of climate change came up (he raised it), I was a little taken aback by the bluntness of Long’s stance: “I’m not sure society is prepared to do enough about it, so ‘You’re going to have to deal with it, folks.'”
Long dismissed concerns over real-estate values; he thinks the Dannis appraisal is deeply flawed and has commissioned an appraisal of the appraisal, so to speak.
“There are 1,500 miles of transmission lines in New Hampshire. To my knowledge, there’s no evidence that any of those lines has affected real estate values,” he said. “Anecdotally, there’s just as much evidence that values don’t go down.”