Speak Out at This Week’s Public Meetings on Reforming New Hampshire’s Transmission Line Siting Process
The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) has sole in-state decision-making authority on the siting of the Northern Pass transmission lines. The SEC will decide whether to approve the proposed transmission lines, and if so, where they should go, whether they should be above-ground or underground, and all other location and design matters. Under the New Hampshire process, the affected towns and regions have no authority whatsoever over the siting decision.
We can’t overemphasize the importance of the SEC to the outcome of Northern Pass. In New Hampshire the “buck stops” with the SEC, and the SEC’s determination may be the “make or break” for the project. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has a separate, much more limited federal process and takes great care to make it clear that siting decisions inside New Hampshire (versus the international border crossing) are up to the state (that is, the SEC), not federal authorities.
New SEC Study
In response to deep concerns about the fairness of the SEC process voiced by New Hampshire citizens, the state legislature adopted legislation (SB99) requiring a broad-ranging study of the SEC and its process and potential reforms. The study is being done by the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning (OEP). The OEP’s information page on the SEC study is here.
The study includes interactive “Citizen Workshops” in several locations around the state, as well as hearing-style “Listening Sessions” where the public can provide input. These public meetings start this week.
The Listening Sessions are December 2 (Colebrook), December 11 (Lebanon) and December 17 (Plymouth). The Citizens Workshops (which require advance sign-up) are December 3 (Manchester), December 4 (Groveton), December 5 (Keene), December 9 (Newington) and December 10 (Plymouth). Times, locations and sign-up information are on the OEP information page.
Call to Action
We urge you to attend one of these sessions to make your views known. Let our state officials know that the SEC process as currently designed stacks the deck in favor of transmission developers and does NOT protect the public interest. Demand that the process be fixed.
Just as you would expect from a fox guarding the henhouse, Northern Pass and its supporters will try to paint the picture that the SEC process works just fine and there are no problems at all. They’ll likely take the position that the process should be made even more developer-friendly. It’s up to the public to stand up, tell the truth and demand changes.
REAL’s Suggested Changes
We recommend fundamental changes to the SEC’s jurisdiction and process. Without major reforms, the SEC fails to serve the public interest. We call for a basic distinction in the treatment of “non-need” and “needed” energy projects.
#1: The Special SEC Approval Process Should NOT Be Available to “Non-Need,” Private Energy Projects
The SEC process boils down to a special, streamlined, industry-slanted regulatory approval process for siting energy facilities (power plants, transmission lines) in New Hampshire. The SEC is a state approval committee that preempts all existing local and regional land use approval requirements and sharply limits the opportunity for meaningful public participation. In other words, if a developer wants to build any major energy facility in New Hampshire, the developer gets a free pass from local and regional land use rules and meaningful public debate. The project is considered only at the state level, and under a set of procedural rules that rush the approval process forward, short-change public input and clearly favor the industry developers.
What’s remarkable is that the energy industry has gotten this special deal just for itself. Our guess is that the energy lobby was able to capitalize successfully on fears associated with the decades-old oil crisis. The lobbyists were able to paint energy as a critical public need and convince legislators to hand out exceptional “breaks” in the SEC process.
The world has changed. Most energy projects today have nothing to do with public need and are all about private, corporate profit, like any other business. But the special SEC giveaways for all large energy projects continue, even for private, for-profit, non-need, “merchant” transmission developments like Northern Pass.
This is neither fair nor sound policy. In today’s world, most energy projects are just another private, corporate investment. There is no reason why a transmission line or generation plant sponsored by a big company just to make more money should have any special breaks in the approval process. Why should a new private energy project from Hydro-Quebec, Northeast Utilities and PSNH have a streamlined, project-slanted approval process with limited public input and a full exemption from local land use rules, when a new private hospital (health), new private university (education), new private food processing plant (food), or new private manufacturing business (jobs) will be 100% subject to full and customary state, local and regional review and public comment?
REAL does not believe that private, for-profit energy projects should be entitled to any special treatment. We recommend that the SEC process be changed so that private, merchant energy projects (that is, projects for which there is no determination of “need” by the applicable federal, regional or state regulator) no longer fall within the jurisdiction of the SEC. Private, merchant energy projects should be subject to the same New Hampshire state, regional and local approval rules as any other private development project.
We would specifically limit the SEC’s jurisdiction to energy projects that have been formally determined by the appropriate federal, regional or state regulator to serve a “public need.”
#2: For “Needed” Energy Projects, the SEC Process Should Be Changed to Make It More Fair for the Public
Where the SEC will still have jurisdiction (“needed” energy projects), the process must be changed to level the playing field for the public.
- Affected towns must approve project: The SEC process is a carte-blanche pre-emption of local and regional authority. Yes, the SEC is supposed to hear the views of affected towns and regional bodies, but there is nothing in the rules that prevents the SEC from granting approval even if every single affected town and region overwhelmingly says “no” to a project on the official record. The weight of local voices should be increased in the SEC procedure. The SEC should be prevented from granting approval if the town affected, by official vote, disapproves the development. For multi-town projects, if a majority of the affected towns, by official vote, disapprove the project, the SEC should be required to reject it.
- Local participation in approval process: Only state agencies sit on the SEC. There is no local or regional voice. To ensure that local and regional points of view are really taken into account, the SEC membership should “float” on a project-to-project basis, with at least one-third of the membership for any given application representing the affected towns and regional bodies. This would ensure a more fair and robust debate at the SEC and more airtime for local public concerns.
- Replace subjective standards with required determination of “net public benefit”: The standards for SEC approval are unclear, subjective and highly judgmental. They employ terms such as “unreasonable” or “undue” when referring to harms to the public interest, with no definitions, references or quantification. This approach should be replaced by the clear requirement that the SEC, to grant approval, must determine that the project produces a net public benefit, taking into account all applicable benefits and costs. The statute should provide a non-exclusive list of the factors to be considered. There should be no presumption that any and all energy projects somehow generate substantial net public benefits, and the SEC process should be held to the higher standard and rigor of a qualitative, and to the extent practicable, quantitative net cost-benefit analysis.
- Give more weight to property rights. Nothing in the current SEC legislation requires the SEC to consider and give specific weight to a project’s harm to property values and the use and enjoyment of private property. Private property rights are strongly protected in New Hampshire’s political traditions as well as in our state constitution. Surely the legislature did not intend to subjugate property rights to energy project incentives (the SEC approval process is in substance nothing more than an incentive handed out to energy companies). The SEC should be prohibited from approving a project if it entails material, measurable harms to property values or property rights, unless the developer reaches a consensual agreement with affected property owners to mitigate or compensate the harms.
- Require consideration of alternatives. The SEC rules do not require the applicant to lay out alternatives such as different routes, designs or other variations that may lessen harmful impacts. This leads to a high-stakes, take-it-or-leave-it posture that tilts the playing field toward the project as proposed. The SEC process should be revised to require applications to present detailed analysis of reasonable alternatives, and the SEC should have the authority to require a serious alternatives analysis if it is not presented by the project sponsor.
- Level the evidentiary playing field. The SEC purports to make its decisions based on an evidentiary record, where the project developer and members of the public can present formal reports, professional assessments, valuations and the like. This once again stacks the deck in favor of the developer. The developer has the budget to hire experts to provide testimony. The public generally does not. As a result, on matters as fundamental as whether a transmission line will adversely affect property values, the developer can slap an expert study on the table saying “no impact”, the public can’t afford a fully competing study (that is, the public presents no comparable evidence, just appraisals of several affected properties), and the SEC is left to decide the property value point in favor of the developer, because the public has failed to prove its point with comparable evidence. The public point of view gets overwhelmed by the developer’s wall of money. We recommend two fixes. First, the developer should be required to fund expert studies undertaken for the public’s side of the debate. Second, on points that may not be fully covered (in an evidentiary sense) by the competing studies of the developer and the public, the SEC itself should be required to commission objective expert input.
Members of REAL will be attending several of the Citizens Workshops and Listening Sessions. Please join us in bringing the public’s point of view to these meetings.