Our elected officials listen, but do state agencies?
Northern Pass study commission exposed conflicts of participants from state departments
State Sen. Jeanie Forester and House members Paul Simard, Jackie Cali-Pitts and Larry Rappaport deserve kudos and the public’s sincere thanks for their hard work over the past four months as members of the SB 361 Energy Infrastructure Corridors study commission.
The amount of work that went into the 361 commission hearings, work sessions and final report – available on-line at http://gencourt.state.nh.us/statstudcomm/reports/2092.pdf - is particularly impressive because these citizen-legislators are basically volunteers who have other, full-time jobs in addition to their legislative duties.
This study commission was created, at least in part, in response to the controversial Northern Pass Transmission Project. It was charged with studying whether New Hampshire’s transportation rights of way – along interstate highways, roads and railway beds - are appropriate for use as energy corridors. Maine, other states and other countries are actively exploring or already using these kinds of rights-of-way for burying electric transmission lines.
Note that the charge to the commission also included exploring whether there could be economic benefits for the state from leasing these rights-of-way. While the final 361 Commission report states this is an area where more data needs to be gathered, keep in mind that transmission corridors have the potential to provide a significant revenue source for New Hampshire.
As we go into a new and challenging budget year at the State House, this is not something to quickly dismiss.
The 361 Commission is clear, comprehensive and covers a very substantial amount of information in only 12 pages, but it also shows a striking difference between the positions and votes of the elected and non-elected members of the commission.
The majority of the four elected officials on the commission agreed, for example, that New Hampshire needs a defined energy policy, that there should be a moratorium on applications for new transmission projects not considered as reliability projects by ISO-NE, and that proposals for new overhead transmission lines, like Northern Pass, also include plans for underground alternatives.
These recommendations, all of which seem to me to be reasonable and balanced, were supported by the large majority of comments and testimony the commission heard over the past months, yet the state agency representatives opposed them.
These members also declined the opportunity they were given to recuse themselves from voting on the commission recommendations, which would have made sense because they or their agencies are also members of the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, the entity that will decide the Northern Pass siting application.
It is not in my nature to use stereotypes and refer to state employees as complacent, but that’s the kindest way I can refer to these agency representatives in this context. If their positions alone had prevailed as the 361 Commission recommendations, it would mean that the state would do nothing but roll over and let the Northern Pass proposal -- the most massive transmission line project in New Hampshire history -- proceed, unchecked.
Those of us who sat through the 361 Commission meetings have to wonder if these non-elected members heard the same testimony we did. They certainly chose not to hear the many experts who came before them. They certainly did not hear the 200 citizens at the public hearing in Plymouth, not one of whom spoke in favor of the Northern Pass proposal. They did not hear the conservation and environmental organizations, none of whom support Northern Pass. They certainly did not act in the best interest of the North Country, where over 30 towns have passed local ordinances opposing Northern Pass to date.
This is one of those times when I am truly relieved that New Hampshire has a 424-member Legislature that is so representative of the people of our state. State agencies do not set policy – our elected officials do.
Let’s hope that incoming Governor Hassan and the new Legislature continue to listen to their constituents, hear the facts, and make decisions about our energy, economic and environmental future based on what is best for the entire state.
Joe Drinon of Chichester has been an active opponent of the proposed Northern Pass project.