Next New Hampshire governor is solid backer of Northern Pass

Supporters say it's a critical tool for lowering energy costs.

By: AP | Concord | Published:November 20, 2016 10:03 pm

The contentious Northern Pass transmission line project will have its strongest advocate yet in New Hampshire’s corner office when Republican Chris Sununu becomes governor in January. New Hampshire’s statewide politicians have tended to tiptoe around the plan to bring 1,090 megawatts of power from Canada into the New England energy grid through mostly overhead transmission lines strung down the state. That’s enough to power roughly 1 million homes. Opponents argue the project will mar New Hampshire’s natural beauty, and they question claims that it will benefit New Hampshire ratepayers and taxpayers. Supporters say it’s a critical tool for lowering energy costs.

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Lawmakers, from outgoing Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan to the congressional delegation, have mostly declined to endorse or reject the project, instead arguing for more community involvement and possibly burying more of the line. The most recent version of the plan calls for burying about 60 miles of the line _ up from an earlier proposed 8 miles. The project’s total length is 192 miles. But Sununu stands apart.

“Fully burying the line is not realistic,” he said Thursday, echoing a point he made throughout his campaign. “The economics really break down when you start demanding the entire line be buried.”

Company executives from Eversource Energy, the New England-based company partnering with HydroQuebec on the project, are certainly happy about his stance. At least 27 Eversource employees, mainly executives, contributed upward of $19,000 total to Sununu’s campaign, state campaign finance reports showed.

But beyond using the bully pulpit, Sununu may have limited sway on the project’s fate. The Site Evaluation Committee has final state approval over Northern Pass, a decision slated for September 2017. Federal approval is also needed.

“I am disappointed that (Sununu) supports it. He’s got his views on that, and he’s pretty strong,” said Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester, one of Sununu’s primary opponents and a staunch Northern Pass opponent.

Still, opponents are already preparing packets of information for Sununu and his administration. Cathy Corkery, of the New Hampshire Sierra Club, said the concerns go far beyond burial. She said the project has changed in scope, and she worries New Hampshire ratepayers will be on the hook. And she’s skeptical that the state would see a financial benefit.

“I think as an executive councilor (Sununu) might not have participated in some of the more vigorous conversations about Northern Pass,” Corkery said.

The project is part of a broader effort by Canadian power producers to sell electricity into southern New England and New York. In Maine, the Massachusetts-based Anbaric Transmission is proposing a 300-mile transmission project that would bury cables from eastern Maine and then under the ocean to deliver the power to Massachusetts.

In Vermont, Anbaric is seeking to run a 60-mile line partially under Lake Champlain that would connect to the regional power grid in New Haven. TDI New England is also proposing a project through Vermont.

Sununu said he’s open to promoting “any and all means to lower energy rates,” which can in turn draw new businesses to New Hampshire and grow the state’s economy. On Northern Pass in particular, Sununu said that he’ll work on ensuring the process is “open and fair” and that local communities continue to have a voice.

Will Abbott, of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, expressed optimism about working with Sununu, even though his organization opposes the project without full burial.

“I think Gov. Sununu is in a unique position to bring parties together to establish a solution that works for everybody,” Abbott said.

Sununu, along with his rivals in the primary and the general election, had an opportunity to meet with Eversource’s political committee, perhaps sparking some of the donations to his campaign.

“We encourage our employees to take part in the political process in accordance with all applicable laws,” Eversource spokesman Martin Murray said. “We very much look forward to having a dialogue about Northern Pass, as we have with past governors.”