Northern Pass Behaving Badly
The following op-ed by Forest Society Board of Trustees Chair William Webb and President/Forester Jane A. Difley was published in various newspapers over the last few weeks.
There’s been disturbing news of late in Coos County where Eversource has endeavored to hold the redevelopment of the Balsams Resort hostage to potential permitting for the proposed Northern Pass. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to squeeze the North Country into submission with promises of payoffs.
How have they attempted to do so? By plying the owners of the Balsams with $2 million in Eversource shareholder funds and reportedly dangling promises of as much as $100 million from the so-called Forward NH Fund if Northern Pass were ever permitted.
As reported in local media, Les Otten and his partners have subsequently sought to rub out local opposition to Northern Pass as proposed with a simple threat: the Balsams redevelopment won’t go forward without big money from Northern Pass, and that money only comes if Northern Pass is permitted.
While northern Coos County has a big stake in the outcome of the Balsams redevelopment, every New Hampshire resident should be deeply concerned by this latest attempt by Eversource to peddle influence and interfere in local issues that have little to do with their proposed 192-mile transmission line.
First, anyone who cares about good government and fair play should be concerned that Eversource is perverting the permitting process for Northern Pass.
As Eversource New Hampshire’s Bill Quinlan acknowledged in one of the March public hearings on Northern Pass, the Forward NH fund is not yet active and will not be active unless Northern Pass is permitted to move forward. He also acknowledged that the $2 million advanced to Mr. Otten comes from “Eversource shareholders,” meaning that the company is now making direct payments to elicit support for its troubled project.
And in attempting to link success at the Balsams to success with an overhead Northern Pass line, Eversource and Mr. Otten are taking things a step further by twisting arms to change input submitted to the Site Evaluation Committee. This is dangerously coercive.
As a state, through a process meant to protect true public interest, we are considering whether to permit Northern Pass, not the Balsams. We should not let Eversource confuse the issue.
Second, instead of avoiding adverse impacts of its proposal, Northern Pass continues to attempt to manufacture public benefits and buy favor.
Eversource’s Balsams gambit is just one more attempt to make up for the fact that Northern Pass itself brings little to the table for New Hampshire. And in the attempt, they are once again pitting business against business and neighbor against neighbor. It’s time for that to stop.
If Northern Pass is to go forward, it should be because it demonstrates meaningful and substantial public benefit to New Hampshire, not because other, unrelated projects may have benefit or even because the project has established a Forward NH fund.
Third, none of this is good news for the potential of a successfully redeveloped Balsams.
In the short-term, permitting for Northern Pass is likely to take multiple years. When Mr. Otten first approached the Forest Society in 2014, he said he felt it was necessary to start work that very summer in order to preserve the value of the Balsams brand. There are myriad reasons that the multiple permits—at the state and federal level—may well never be forthcoming for Northern Pass as proposed. Meanwhile, the value of the Balsams brand is draining away.
Long term, if Northern Pass and the State of New Hampshire are the only sources of investment in the Balsams because private investors have been unwilling to gamble on its potential success, it doesn’t bode well for the viability of the resort. A partially rebuilt Balsams resort gone bankrupt won’t be the long-term economic engine many in the North Country seek, and no Northern Pass largesse will guarantee success.
Many in New Hampshire, including the Forest Society, wish the owners of the Balsams good fortune in redeveloping the Balsams. That is, in small part, why our Board of Trustees listened carefully to Mr. Otten and Governor Hassan as we considered requests for an amendment to the Balsams conservation easement. We said no to some proposed changes, and we were careful to follow a process that yielded a greater conservation outcome, but we dealt in good faith. We did not ask or attempt to extract from the Balsams owners a quid pro quo opposition to Northern Pass.
Northern Pass, as a largely overhead transmission line, faces stiff permitting challenges, not the least of which being that they still do not have the property rights needed to build it. The more than 1,100 tower structures they currently propose to build, and the road network needed to build and maintain them, would create significant adverse impacts to wetlands, views, and property values.
But surmounting those obstacles should not come through payoffs and manufactured benefits. Instead it needs to come from avoiding and reducing those impacts by burying Northern Pass along appropriate transportation corridors. There is a win-win for Northern Pass, and it’s in reach just four feet under the highway.
More than a century ago, the Rev. John E. Johnson published a pamphlet decrying the behavior of another North Country bully, the New Hampshire Land Company, that used its wealth to consolidate land holdings and systematically deforest the White Mountains. He infamously called the company the “Boa Constrictor of the White Mountains,” which, he wrote, was eating out the heart of the old granite state.
It is an apt description today of the attempts by Eversource—and now Mr. Otten-- to compel the people of New Hampshire to do their bidding simply to avoid the costs of burial. In doing so, rather than building a sense of community and a strong economy, they are in fact tearing them apart. We call on all those who cherish the integrity of the regulatory process—especially elected officials-- to publicly denounce these divisive tactics and spare New Hampshire from a new boa constrictor.