By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Last week supporters of a bill to do away with the Site Evaluation Committee and move its authority to the Public Utilities Commission had their say, but Monday opponents turned out to denounce the lack of public input in the new proposal.
The end result of two days of public hearings and a two-hour executive session, was a 20-0 vote of the House Science, Technology and Science Committee to retain the bill, work on it this fall and deal with the issue again next year.
The committee chairman Rep. Michael Vose, R-Epping, proposed an amendment that reinstated two public positions into the approval process, as well as other changes like notifying all state agencies of an energy facility application and allowing them to participate instead of just five departments.
But some committee members remained concerned about some provisions of the bill and others wanted to see clearer language to replace vague sections.
The entire committee will work on the bill, which is a priority of the governor and others in state government who believe the current process needs reform.
House Bill 609 has the support of state agencies, utilities, including the state’s largest, Eversource, unions and business groups including the Business and Industry Association.
Supporters say new energy developers and projects are bypassing the state because of the uncertain, inefficient and costly approval process for energy facilities greater than 30 megawatts including transmission projects like the defunct Northern Pass, which hung over the public hearings on the bill.
Bill opponents say the current SEC process works, noting regulators listened to various interests before voting down the nearly $2 billion, high-voltage, transmission project that would have stretched from the Canadian border to Deerfield to move Hydro-Quebec power to Massachusetts.
Nearly nine years from its announcement to its demise in 2018, the SEC unanimously denied Eversource’s application saying it was not in the public’s interest as it would harm the orderly development and economies of towns in its path.
The adjudicative hearings stretched from spring into winter before the SEC voted it down, and the state Supreme Court upheld that decision.
Barry Draper of New Hampton, who was an intervenor against the project, said it would have been “a scar running across the state of New Hampshire.”
He told the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee Monday, in all the testimony last week and that day no one mentioned the environment, but there was plenty of talk about money, and more money.
“I ask you to think about what we have here in New Hampshire,” he said, “and save it.”
Former House Finance Committee Chair Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said the bill contained the good, the bad and the ugly.
He said the good would be speeding up the siting process which currently takes too long.
The bad is having the PUC in charge of making the decision on siting a facility when it does not have the ability to do the same kind of job the SEC does, he said.
“This needs to be divided up and done under an independent body,” Kurk said.
The ugly, he said, is the strong suspicion the change is a backdoor approach to get Northern Pass in through by eliminating the SEC.
Kurk was assured by committee and former PUC member Rep. Michael Harrington, R-Strafford, that it was not a backdoor effort and has nothing to do with Northern Pass.
Many people at Monday’s public hearing were concerned about the public’s input under the new proposal, saying the public’s input on siting significant energy structures near where they live is essential why it works, if not efficient.
Lisa Linowes of Lyman said the bill as written has an agenda in mind that is contrary to transparency and the current open public process, would weaken the ability to prevent public harm, and would create serious risk to the state.
Questioned by a committee member about the agenda, she said the bill in subtle ways moves away from public involvement and moves all decision-making to state agencies and officials.
“This would significantly move authority to state agencies,” she said, “It gets into the administrative world instead of a public process world.”
Linowes said it places a legislative thumb on the scale, in favor as the bill says the state wants to “encourage critical infrastructure,” without ever defining what that is.
She also took issue with making the involvement of the counsel for the public, which is currently done through the Attorney General’s Office, optional and said it should be required of all major projects.
Several committee members were also concerned about the provision saying the public counsel should be present on every case.
But Vose said counsel may not be needed on smaller projects and if that were the case, it would be a waste of money.
“One of the goals of this legislation,” Vose said, “is to reduce costs wherever we can.”
Former state Senator Wayne King of Bath, told of meeting former long-time Executive Councilor Ray Burton many years ago, when he gave King and his friend a dollar each to register to run for the House.
Burton said while he gave them the dollar he was not going to tell them how to vote, but warned them not to let the legislative process rob the citizens of their voice.
“We cannot rob the citizens of their voice,” King said, and adding two more people to the PUC amounts to something the president of China would propose to placate opposition rather than the president of the United States, referring to Vose’s amendment.
At the earlier hearing, several people were concerned just three people would be making a decision on a major energy project that could affect many people.
Currently, the SEC has nine members including representatives from the departments of environmental services, transportation, business and economic affairs, and natural and cultural resources, the three Public Utilities Commissioners, and two members of the public for a nine-member board.
Mark Sanborn, Assistant Commission of the Department of Environmental Services, said the SEC has a difficult time having enough members for a quorum and has little funding and staff.
Many of the people testifying Monday said the SEC needs changes, but not elimination nor removing public input from the process,
The bill Monday was opposed by representatives of The Conservation Law Foundation, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the NH Sierra Club.
The committee had to make some recommendations today and did not believe it had the time to make the changes in the bill needed and instead decided to retain it and work on it for next year’s session.
There is no site application before the SEC at this time.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.