Pulling the Plug on an Energy Project in New England

Photograph by Jarrod McCabe
Photograph by Jerry and Marcy Monkman/ECOPHOTOGRAPHY

Pulling the Plug on an Energy Project in New England

A habitat-destroying transmission line hits a wall in New Hampshire.

By Ted Williams
Published: May-June 2014

In the polar vortex of late January 2014, the thermometer on my truck dash reads minus 6. "No Pass," the signs keep shouting. Why, I wonder, are people so paranoid about drivers way up here in northern New Hampshire's Coos County? Even a Masshole from Taxachusetts wouldn't pass on these narrow roads, snow-clad despite the salt and unlit by man or, on this night, moon or stars. Finally a more explicit sign enlightens me: "Northern Pass Kiss My Ass."

Reviled throughout New Hampshire, the Northern Pass is the name of a corporate partnership consisting of Canada's Hydro-Quebec (the world's largest hydroelectric producer, owned by the provincial government) and Hartford, Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities, a private corporation that peddles electricity and natural gas. It is also the name of the high-voltage transmission line that partnership hopes to build, blowing a long, wide clearcut and a maze of access roads through New Hampshire's currently intact northern forest.

If Northern Pass adheres to its proclaimed schedule, in three years at least 1,500 steel towers, some of them 135 feet high, along with two underground stretches totalling about eight miles, will carry 1,200 megawatts 187 miles from the international border to Deerfield, New Hampshire, where it will be collected by the New England grid. The southern 147 miles would follow existing power line rights-of-way, but the high steel towers and wires along this section will cause significant avian mortality because at night, when many songbirds migrate, they feel safe above tree line---but they can't see well. These losses, however, will be dwarfed by mortality caused by habitat fragmentation, with the main victims being neotropical migrants. A few species will benefit, but mostly ones we don't need more of. We are, for instance, pretty well supplied with brown-headed cowbirds.

 

Incursions into our last best land and water by highly capitalized multinational energy corporations have become a constant in the United States. We've seen it in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP flouted safety regulations. We've seen it in Alaska, where the Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell, Europe's biggest oil company, threatens some of our largest intact marine and terrestrial ecosystems and the people whose lives depend on them. And we've seen it in the middle of our country, where Calgary-based TransCanada is bluffing and bullying its way through six states in order to pipe the world's dirtiest oil under, over, and through some of our best water supplies and most fragile wildlife habitats.

But New Hampshire has taken a stand that other states and other political bodies should heed. Democracy and the sanctity of the individual are taken seriously here in the "Live Free or Die" state, where 400 representatives and 24 senators answer to a population of only 1.3 million. That's by far the largest state legislature--larger than Canada's, in fact. New Hampshire will be heard. And even if it loses this fight, it will go down with all guns blazing.

"It's done my heart great good to see all the people who have come out to fight the Northern Pass," says Jack Savage, communications vice president for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (also known as the Forest Society). "Conservatives, liberals, and Forest Society types have come together to say, 'No, this is about who we are as a state, what we value. No, we're not going to let you do this; we like what we have.' "

Until January 2012 Northern Pass's challenge was to buy (or possibly seize) enough land to ram its line through before opposition solidified. But that month the legislature enacted a law forbidding eminent domain for such projects. Suddenly the company was forced to rely on land purchases alone, but the Forest Society outmaneuvered it, blocking its preferred route by acquiring strategic easements. So in June 2013 Northern Pass moved the route west and pledged to bury 7.5 miles of the line. The society believes the new route is also protected by easements. Northern Pass, now basing the project's future entirely on a legal theory, claims otherwise. The courts will decide who's right, if it gets that far.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire legislators are scrambling to erect other barriers. Three pending bills would require stricter oversight by the Public Utilities Commission and the Site Evaluation Committee (which certifies energy facilities and their proposed locations). Northern Pass can build its transmission line only if it complies with any and all new legislation; if the U.S. Department of Energy hatches an adequate environmental impact statement; if the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense concur with that document; if Northern Pass gets a permit from the White Mountain National Forest; and if the company prevails against NGOs and citizen groups that will almost surely sue.

That's a lot of "ifs." But they all seem to take wing when one chats with Northern Pass flacks, as I discovered at the Manchester headquarters of Northeast Utilities' subsidiary, Public Service of New Hampshire. I was greeted by one Michael Skelton, young, clean-cut, articulate, and passionate about "keeping the lights on." He explained that Granite State citizens and their elected officials display "a fundamental misunderstanding of how energy works" when they claim that a foreign government and its accessory from Connecticut want to sacrifice New Hampshire's pristine northern frontier by running a habitat-wrecking extension cord to southern New England. "Energy," he proclaimed, "does not recognize political boundaries. 

"New England is different than other parts of the country," he continued. "We have only a few native fuel sources. Almost everything we use to generate electricity we have to import. So our energy costs are 40 percent higher than in other parts of the country. Older sources, like Vermont Yankee [an ancient nuke], are about to retire. Northern Pass will bring in as much electricity as one [older] nuclear power plant, three natural gas plants, or 2,000 wind turbines. It will displace up to five million tons of carbon per year."

 

Nothing Skelton said is untrue, but there's more to be said. Northeast Utilities is generally recognized by the environmental community as the biggest toxic- and greenhouse-gas polluter in New England. One of the reasons regional energy costs are so high is that the company insists on running two ancient and uneconomic coal-fired power plants (in Bow and Portsmouth, New Hampshire) that environmentalists say should have been decommissioned years ago. In 2012 they made the "Dirty Dozen List," which recognizes New England's most "egregious polluters," as determined by a 13-member panel of environmental and public health professionals.

So New Hampshire rate payers are being forced to subsidize the fossil-fuel pollution that blights them. "When Northeast Utilities claims that Northern Pass is needed to reduce carbon emissions, we suggest they first look in the mirror," remarks Christophe Courchesne of the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation.

And Northeast Utilities has been bashed for playing fast and loose with Connecticut law. In 2013 CEO Thomas May emailed employees, urging them to contribute to the reelection campaign of Governor Dannel Malloy, who, like May, wanted large-scale, Northern Pass-style hydropower certified as "renewable." May asked his people to make checks payable to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee (direct contributions are unlawful). They coughed up $46,500.

"ISO New England [created by the feds to assess regional electricity requirements] has made no determination that we need Northern Pass," says the Forest Society's Savage."People assume Northern Pass is a public utility project. It's not; it's private, commercial development of our best wild land. This is not about what's good for the environment, New Hampshire, energy consumers, or even the energy market. It's about what's good for Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec."

Although New England has enough energy now, Skelton's point that more will be needed is well taken. More is on the way--from domestic renewable sources like wind and from other transmission lines out of Canada. Two such lines, already in advanced planning stages, will carry similar loads to southern New England at somewhat similar costs. Another, 146 miles longer than the Northern Pass, will carry up to 1,000 megawatts to the New York metro area at a cost of $2.2 billion. All three lines will be underground and underwater and therefore less hurtful to the environment than lines strung between towers.

Skelton also speaks the truth when he repeats his company's mantra that burying the Northern Pass will be more expensive than the estimated $1.4 billion cost of running it overground. But the three other transmission projects in the works make it clear that burying lines is still profitable.

As our interview concluded, Skelton veered from a subject I knew little about to one he appeared to know little about. "Towers," he declared, "are the preferred method for transmission for environmental reasons. You're going to disrupt soil and wildlife when you bury lines."

Towers are "preferred" only by companies that think they can save money by erecting them. And of course any disruption of soil or wildlife from burying a line along an existing corridor would be inconsequential compared with defiling the north woods' de facto wilderness--including the White Mountain National Forest--with giant steel towers on massive concrete bases, all stitched together with access roads.

Returning to his area of expertise, Skelton said: "The question comes down to cost and practicality of engineering. And I think we can all agree that if we bring clean, renewable energy into the grid, that's good for everybody."

 

But just how "clean" and "renewable" is Hydro-Quebec energy? For one thing, the electricity required to feed the Northern Pass will come at the expense of the Romaine River, its valley, and, reports the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, breeding habitat for approximately "97,000 pairs of forest birds." Such reservoirs leach mercury from the soil, poisoning people and wildlife. And while the power they generate contributes less to climate change than fossil fuels do, it hardly comes free of greenhouse gases. The reservoirs destroy rich carbon sinks even as they spew carbon dioxide and methane from decaying vegetation.

Canada's First Nations have never agreed that power from their ruined rivers and land is "clean," "renewable," or "good for everybody." Threatened by proposed dams on the Great Whale and surrounding rivers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cree Indians dubbed Hydro-Quebec energy "environmental racism" and urged American politicians to boycott the project, which would have drowned an area the size of New Hampshire. In 1992 they convinced then Governor Mario Cuomo of New York to void the state's $17 billion contract with Hydro-Quebec. Two years later New York voided a second contract, Canada's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cree, and the Great Whale project died.

But elsewhere Hydro-Quebec has flooded about seven million acres and dammed all but two of the province's 17 biggest rivers. The Romaine is the latest victim, though three of the four planned dams are not yet built. One of Canada's wildest rivers, the Romaine rises in a rich boreal forest-wetland complex along the Quebec-Labrador border and flows about 300 miles to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It sustains Atlantic salmon, landlocked salmon, brook trout, and Arctic char, all dependent on cool, oxygenated current. Much of the Romaine and 20 of its tributaries will be converted to stagnant deadwater by 2020--if Hydro-Quebec finds adequate U.S. markets. But given New Hampshire's stance, the destruction of the Romaine system is by no means assured. "For electricity, the international border is like a wall," says the Conservation Law Foundation's Courchesne. "Every time you open a door, that's another way Hydro-Quebec can get its power to New England."

 

Among the materials Michael Skelton plied me with was an op-ed entitled "Forest Society's Priorities Are Blowin' in the Wind" and charging that the society had "spent millions buying land in hopes of killing the Northern Pass project."

The second charge is true enough. But the "priorities" of the highly conservative, 113-year-old outfit are firmly anchored. In fact, some greens don't like the society because, in the White Mountain National Forest, which it helped create in 1911, it has supported both wilderness designation and sustainable commercial logging.

At Forest Society headquarters in Concord, the state capital, I met with president/forester Jane Difley. The building is itself a statement against energy sprawl and waste. A berm insulates the north side. Windows are placed for maximum light and glazed to conserve energy. Wood chips heat one of the wings and act as backup heat for the whole complex. Solar panels power the main building and much of the complex. Light-fixture designs conserve electricity.

"Northern Pass didn't talk to the selectmen of the towns before announcing the route," said Difley. "They didn't talk to the landowners, except the ones they wanted to buy land from or bought land from. They didn't have transparency with the state. Everything was done in secret, and they threw money around wantonly. In Stewartstown they spent $4 million on 20 acres that normally would have sold for $500 to $1,000 an acre. We had volunteers camped out at the Registry of Deeds, and every time a transaction went through, we'd put it on a map so we could see where they were going. When we blocked the original route, Northern Pass went to the AG's office and claimed we couldn't buy conservation easements without paying full price. When that hit the presses people were outraged, because they knew they had a right to sell easements to who they pleased for what they pleased. It was great for us. Every time Northern Pass opened its mouth, people sent us money."

Northern Pass proclaims it can run its line across the Forest Society's 1,400-acre Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, 85 miles north of Concord, by erecting its metal towers beside an old, low Northeast Utilities line. But it's not clear that a private party can legally access a right-of-way acquired by rate payers. The Rocks Estate was given to the society in 1978 by the grandchildren of John Jacob Glessner, founder of International Harvester, on the condition it continued to be protected and farmed. The current crop is Christmas trees, and the cutting rotation has brought a profusion of bobolinks, killdeer, and bluebirds. But the threat here is not so much bird loss as dollar loss to the local economy. The estate is a huge regional draw. People come here from all over the East to admire and photograph the White Mountains, to watch birds, to hike, and to attend educational programs in wildlife, forestry, maple sugaring, and the history of the estate.

With estate director Nigel Manley I stood on a terrace, a popular spot for weddings that overlooks the proposed route of the Northern Pass and offers arguably the state's most spectacular view of the Presidential Range. In front of us Dalton Ridge and Twin Mountain rose white and gray. Mount Washington on the right and Mount Jefferson on the left seemed almost touchable. And through the clear, frigid air we could make out jagged peaks in Vermont. "The Northern Pass line would absolutely destroy this viewshed," declared Manley. "It would be much less of an issue if they buried it."

 

As I drove north, the signs excoriating the Northern Pass became increasingly abundant and explicit. Nowhere is a warm welcome (or any welcome) less likely for a foreign-government entity that pops up on U.S. soil, secretly buys up private property, and then tells Americans what needs to be done with and to their land.

In Stewartstown I dropped in on Lynne Placey, a widowed piano teacher who lives in the shadow of Hardscrabble Ridge. "Among the joys of living here are our birds," she told me. "One day my grandson took a walk up back. Later he said, 'Grandma, I could see the blue sky through the canopy. The only sound was wind in the trees and birds singing. And all I could think of was people who live in the city are never going to experience this, and we don't want it ruined.' I thought that was pretty insightful for a boy of 14."

But not all of Lynne Placey's relatives think like her grandson. "Northern Pass offered me money for my land via my nephew," she continued. "That's how they do it. He came here and said: 'I've just sold my land to Northern Pass for half a million dollars. They'd like to buy yours, and if you sell it, you'll be set financially for life.' I turned him down. Three of my nieces, two grandnephews, and a grandniece sold out, too. It just breaks my heart to see these kids toss away the Placey land; it has created hard feelings in the family."

Squarely in the path of an earlier Northern Pass route was the dairy farm of Rod McAllaster, also of Stewarts-town. Eventually I located it in remote high country off an iced-over dirt road. When I didn't find him in the barn I tried to phone him, but there was no cell service. "The bitch in the box," as my wife calls our GPS, had been confused and petulant through most of Coos County. Now she insisted that McAllaster's house was half a mile up a steep slope that presently disgorged five snowmobilers. Maybe this time she was right, and maybe Jack Savage hadn't been speaking figuratively when he warned me that McAllaster's driveway was "basically a snowmobile trail." So I switched to four-wheel drive and plowed ahead.

At last I could see a white house. But 50 yards downslope I got stuck and, in the process of blasting out, spooked at least 50 heifers into the wrong field. The hassle was almost worth it (at least for me) because I acquired great views of Dixville Notch and Mount Washington.

An hour later, after I'd backed all the way down to the barn, I found that McAllaster had been in it all along. He hadn't heard me yelling because he'd been fixing a major water leak. The house I'd seen on the hill is the old Hiram Flanders homestead in which Rod's grandfather's uncle was born three years before the Civil War. Milking operations started on the farm in 1900. The grandfather ran the farm next door (eventually the two farms were combined) until Rod's father and Rod's uncle took over for him. Rod then took over for them. And Rod hopes his son, Paul, will take over for him.

Cows licked my back, butt, and legs as I interviewed Rod McAllaster in his warm, fragrant barn. "At first Northern Pass had an individual I knew call me," he said. "Then they had an individual who'd sold them land come to see me. They did a lot of undercover work. Everything was a secret and, as I understand it, people who sold out had to sign confidentiality agreements. Other companies are burying power lines. This thing is obsolete before it's off the drawing board. There are a lot of parts they want to use up, and New Hampshire is one of them. We don't count."

McAllaster could have sold the family farm to Northern Pass for $4 million. Instead he sold (practically gave) a conservation easement to the Forest Society. His words to the Northern Pass realtor, who showed up on his property uninvited and unannounced, are being quoted across the state: "My roots are deeper than your pockets."

Nailing this traditional mindset that now confronts Northern Pass was New Hampshire's logger-farmer-poet Edward French, whose Northern Counties was read before the massive legislature shortly after his death in 1986: "... Always the woodpile, /Always the axe, /Always the calloused hands. /Always the hate of rules and tax, /Always they fit these stony lands, /Always stubborn but never late, / For they were made of the Granite State."

Northern County types like Placey, McAllaster, the Forest Society, and their elected officials have mounted a defense that Hydro-Quebec had never encountered or imagined. On the long drive back to Taxachusetts, I tried and failed to envision a way the power company and its Connecticut partner could prevail.

"Money gets you influence," as Jack Savage correctly observes, so neither he nor any of his fiercely independent colleagues and allies are dropping their guard. Still, if I had to bet, it would be on New Hampshire eventually winning this fight by forcing Northern Pass to just give up or convincing it to bury its line along disturbed corridors like highways and railroad beds.

Whatever happens, the state will have performed a valuable service by providing a model for Americans about how they can and should respond to multinational raids on land and resources they love and depend on.

This story originally ran as "Hydro-Quebec Hits Granite," in the May-June 2014 issue.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine