Battle Lines | The Northern Pass Energy Project

Who, ultimately, determines the fate of a region? Read more about the battle raging over the Northern Pass energy project.

By Ben Hewitt

Oct 12 2011

John Amey

John Amey

Photo Credit : Smith, Dana
On a crystalline afternoon in mid-March, I left my home in Cabot, Vermont, and headed for Interstate 93 south. Within minutes, I’d crossed into New Hampshire. The view through my windshield was dominated by the White Mountains, standing in jagged relief against the cool blue sky. I passed through Littleton, then Franconia, then by the base of Cannon Mountain, where I watched a skier arc wide turns down a steep trail. Each turn threw a thin curtain of snow into the air, where it hung for a second or two before sifting gently to the ground. I was heading toward Franklin, a small city of about 8,500 situated on the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers, where they join to form the Merrimack River. The Merrimack flows southward through the state capital of Concord and into Massachusetts, before turning northeastward to empty into the Atlantic Ocean at the town of Newburyport. Like many New England communities founded near moving water, Franklin was once a thriving mill town. And like many once-thriving mill towns, Franklin is stuck in a decades-long struggle to reinvent itself. It’s not exactly a depressed town; the unemployment rate is about a point higher than the state average, which was 5.8 percent at the time of my visit. Rather, it has the feel of a place that hasn’t settled on its future, where things are hard, sure, but still good enough to imagine that the future might be better than the recent past. “This town’s coming back to life,” Cynthia Vera insisted, when I asked her about Franklin’s fortunes. Vera runs an antiques and auction company with her husband, Anthony, on Franklin’s Central Street. Vera & Company Auctioneers is located just a couple of doors down from a small pawnshop, where, at the time I dropped in, a young man was trying to start a gas-powered leaf blower under the dubious eye of the proprietor. “It ran last fall,” he said, but his voice was low and his eyes cast down, as if even he knew that last fall was a long time ago. He gave a little nervous chuckle: “I’m gonna have work pretty soon. Then I won’t have to keep pawning all my shit.” I’d come to Franklin because I’d wanted to gain some insight into the community that is home to what is almost certainly the largest concentration of Northern Pass supporters in the entire state. The Northern Pass is a proposed 180-mile power transmission project that, if approved and constructed, would form a corridor of 80- to 135-foot towers carrying electricity from Hydro-Québec in Canada to Deerfield, New Hampshire. If the project is approved, Franklin is where the power will be converted from the direct-current (DC) electricity supplied by Hydro-Québec to the alternating current (AC) that flows into 99 percent of all U.S. homes. The impact on the town, Mayor Ken Merrifield told me, would be “staggering and historic,” increasing the tax base by 44 percent and creating more than 300 jobs here during the construction phase. “What we’d be able to do boggles the mind,” the mayor said. But “staggering and historic” is an apt description for another aspect of the Northern Pass proposal: the near-ubiquity and overwhelming ferocity of the public’s opposition to it. Resistance began immediately following the project’s official announcement in October 2010, and over the ensuing months has only gained momentum, like a chunk of granite careening down a mountainside. Within days of the announcement, the Web sites and bury had gone live, and protesters were composing, sending, and forwarding posts and e-mails. They spoke of obfuscation, profiteering, environmental degradation, and, perhaps most alarmingly, eminent domain. They listed dates of important meetings and legislative hearings. They urged defiance, persistence, and action. By the time I’d become aware of the proposal, in mid-February 2011, the opposition had become so organized and so pervasive that it seemed as if the entire population of New Hampshire had turned against The Northern Pass. But then, I live in northern Vermont, and although I can see into New Hampshire from a hilltop just two miles east of my home, perhaps my non-native perspective was skewed. Perhaps the project’s supporters simply hadn’t mobilized as quickly and effectively. Perhaps there was more to the story. Which is how I found myself sitting across from Mayor Merrifield and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, in a small conference room in Franklin’s city hall. Just a few doors up the street, the frustrated owner of that gas-powered leaf blower was standing on the sidewalk and smoking a cigarette, considering his next move. In an hour, City Hall would be host to a “scoping meeting,” during which U.S. Department of Energy officials would take public comments regarding The Northern Pass. (Because the project would cross an international border, a presidential permit is required; hence the involvement of the DOE.) The evening before, a similar meeting in the town of Pembroke had drawn 400 citizens; of the 55 speakers, 53 voiced opposition, one expressed neutrality, and one spoke in favor of the project. Still, Mayor Merrifield was keen to point out that Franklin wouldn’t be the only community that would benefit from the transmission lines. “Yes, we’re definitely the big winner in terms of the property-tax windfall, but we’re still going to get less than a quarter of what goes to the entire state,” he told me. Elizabeth Dragon nodded her head. The mayor continued: “And remember, we’re looking at 1,200 jobs statewide during the construction phase.” Dragon broke in: “People say, ‘Oh, but those jobs are temporary.'” She was right; that was exactly what people were saying. “But I say, ‘Temporary is better than no job.'” She looked at me almost defiantly, as if daring me to contradict her. “Our businesses need a boost, and there’s going to be economic spinoff.” “That’s right,” Merrifield added. “People may even decide to live in the towns where they’re working.” To me, that sounded like an overly optimistic view of things, but I didn’t really know; maybe he was right. We were quiet for a moment. Late-afternoon sunlight streamed through the window and lay across the table like thin fabric. Through a doorway, I could hear the sounds of the city’s business being done: the shuffle of bodies, the murmur of voices, the clicking of a keyboard. Finally, I posed the question I’d wanted to ask from the beginning but had thus far lacked the courage to voice, in part because it wasn’t about opportunity or growth. It wasn’t about the people and the city of Franklin; in a sense, it wasn’t even about The Northern Pass. “Is it uncomfortable,” I asked the mayor, “being the proponent of a project that has met with near-unanimous opposition elsewhere in the state?” Merrifield paused a bit. He looked tired. He looked as though he wanted to choose his words carefully. “You can understand,” he said, “why people are opposing the project.” To understand why Mayor Merrifield chose his words carefully, you need to know a bit more about The Northern Pass. More specifically, you need to know that Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), the utility that has partnered with Hydro-Québec, the province’s government-owned electrical generation entity, to bring power into the state, doesn’t hold easements on the northernmost 40 miles of the 180 miles it would traverse. You need to know that the transmission lines would be carried by nearly 1,200 towers, ranging in height from 80 to 135 feet tall. You need to know that most, if not all, of the electricity delivered via The Northern Pass wouldn’t remain in New Hampshire but would instead be distributed into the region-wide electricity market. You need to know that New Hampshire is already a net exporter of electricity, producing about twice what its 1.3 million residents use, thanks in large part to the Seabrook nuclear-power plant. You need to know that The Northern Pass is a private, for-profit partnership among Hydro-Québec, NSTAR, and Northeast Utilities, PSNH’s parent company, which estimate that the project will generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue over the next 40 years. This arrangement is unique to the utility market; most transmission lines are actually paid for by consumers, as a surcharge on their monthly bills. It means that Hydro-Québec and PSNH won’t be compelled to share the line with other producers. Opponents argue that this arrangement would give the two companies a virtual stranglehold on the region’s renewable-power supply, although there’s no shortage of debate regarding whether Hydro-Québec should even qualify as a “renewable” energy source, in large part because its infrastructure includes dams and flood zones necessary to create its reservoirs of water. In fact, under current law, Hydro-Québec doesn’t meet the standards necessary to conform to New Hampshire’s renewable-energy mandate. Finally, and this is arguably the issue most responsible for the charged emotions surrounding the response to the proposal, you need to know that the term “eminent domain” has entered the conversation. Indeed, it now seems all but certain that if The Northern Pass is going to happen, it won’t happen via the voluntary sale of multiple rights of way across the 187 privately held properties that make up those 40 miles. Already, many landowners have denied access to their land to anyone associated with the project. Already, they’ve drawn an unwavering line in the rocky New Hampshire soil: This is our land. We will not give it up. Which is to say, it now seems all but certain that if The Northern Pass is going to happen, it will happen only by force. Nearly two months after my visit to Franklin, I again crossed the Vermont/New Hampshire border. But this time, rather than hanging a right-hand turn toward the south, I spun the steering wheel to the left. My destination was the town of Pittsburg, a community of approximately 850 nestled in the forests of the state’s northernmost tier. “The North Country” is how locals refer to the region. It’s an idiom that appeals to my fondness for remote, frontier-like places. But the North Country extends as far south as Franconia, which from Pittsburg is a nearly two-hour drive over twisting, potholed secondary roads; it feels like the sort of place the northern town’s residents head for when, in May, they’re still buried under two feet of slush and want to work on their tans. Indeed, on this May visit, snow still lay in the north-facing ditches along U.S. Route 3, which doubles as Pittsburg’s Main Street. I’d come north for two reasons. One, I wanted to attend an informational meeting intended for the region’s landowners and featuring five speakers, all opposed to The Northern Pass. And two, I wanted to meet John Amey, a dairy farmer and lifelong resident of Pittsburg, who was spearheading regional opposition forces. The meeting was held at the headquarters of the Pittsburg Ridge Runners snowmobile club, which boasts a membership of 3,400. To put this in perspective, there are about 2,550 more members in the town’s eponymous snowmobile club than there are actual residents of the town. The walls of the clubhouse’s meeting room were decorated with large action photos of snowmobiles and riders in pristine wilderness settings; the floor was covered with tables and folding chairs, about half of which were occupied. Most of the occupants wore orange, adopted by the opposition as the official protest color. On my way to the meeting, I’d gotten my directions mixed up (okay, I was lost); when two orange-tape-festooned pickups approached from the opposite direction, I wheeled around and followed them to the clubhouse parking lot. For nearly three hours, the quintet delivered a barrage of numbers, theories, and emotional pleas, all rooted in the core belief that The Northern Pass is a very bad idea. They attacked claims that Hydro-Québec’s electricity is environmentally friendly, noting that a hydro project of such scale and design wouldn’t pass regulatory muster in the United States. They pointed out that at a purported seven million acres, the flood zone created by Hydro-Québec is larger than the entire state of New Hampshire. They noted that according to a paper released by the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, the Northern Pass transmission line “has not been identified by ISO New England [the independent nonprofit that oversees and coordinates the region’s wholesale electricity market] as one required to meet a reliability need.” They argued that the projected $1.1 billion cost of the venture could be better spent–perhaps on domestic energy ventures, or on conservation efforts that would reduce demand by as much or more than The Northern Pass would generate. Furthermore, they said, The Northern Pass is a private, for-profit entity that stands to generate more than $50 billion in revenue for Hydro-Québec over its 40-year lifespan. “This project did not arise out of a desire to meet a public need,” noted Jack Savage, who’d come to Pittsburg to represent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “It arose out of a desire to make private profits.” The speakers stated the oft-repeated fact that New Hampshire is already a net exporter of electricity. Finally, they asserted that The Northern Pass’s claims of a $25 million annual tax-revenue windfall and more than 1,000 temporary construction jobs were examples of half-done math. Jim Dannis, who owns property upon which PSNH already has a right of way, held up a copy of a recent appraisal for which he’d contracted. On one 12-acre building lot, the appraiser estimated a 92-percent reduction in value if the transmission lines were installed. “Do you think I’m going to take a 92 percent hit and not demand a tax abatement?” Dannis asked. It was a rhetorical question, so no one answered. “Imagine that scenario all along the route. This project is going to mean less tax revenue, not more.” And, of course, less revenue would lead to economic contraction, which in turn would cost jobs. After the meeting, I went to dinner with John Amey, his wife, Cindy-Lou, and a small crew of folks who’d attended the meeting. Amey is 61; he possesses an easy smile, a belly that precedes him, and the charming habit of laughing a bit too long at his own jokes. He carries a sense of relaxed optimism about him, even when discussing The Northern Pass, and even when talk turns to the possibility that the project will be approved. “If it doesn’t go through, I’ve won the fight and gotten all these friends,” he told me, gesturing to the circle of people gathered around the table. “If it does go through, I’ve lost the fight, but I’ve still got all these friends.” The Ameys own 1,400 acres and milk a small herd of Holstein cows. They live in the house where John grew up, just down the road from the Amey family cemetery and the Amey family schoolhouse. One of The Northern Pass’s alternative routes is visible from their milkhouse door. It would be easy to assume that the possibility that their view would be radically altered is what drives their opposition. And that does play a part. But it seemed to me that their opposition might be rooted in something less tangible but arguably even more intractable: a life and an ethos that have been forged in connection with the land and their natural surroundings. “I was taught that you don’t put your money into paper; you buy land instead,” Cindy-Lou told me. She was raised in Canada, alongside eight siblings. There were many mouths to feed, and in that day, they were fed primarily from the land upon which they lived. Talk turned to the sugaring season just passed. Every year, Amey puts out 140 buckets (“Just enough to be annoying,” he told me), hanging them as his father, Holman, taught him: 6 inches to the side of the previous season’s tap hole and 12 inches up or down, a calculation that helps avoid the scar tissue the tree forms in response to being tapped. “For years, I thought that eventually you’d end up right back where you started, and then what would you do?” Amey told us. “But I finally realized that the whole time, the tree’s growing. You never hit the same hole twice!” He laughed a little longer than the anecdote required, then shook his head in amazement, perhaps at nature’s process, or maybe at himself, for taking so long to catch on. The president and chief operating officer of PSNH is Gary Long, a tall 60-year-old with a receding crop of hair and a wide wedge of a chin. Long belongs to that rare category of people who, for as long as they can remember, have felt compelled to follow a particular career path. For Long, that path has been the transmission of electricity. He’s been at PSNH for 35 years, steadily working his way up the chain of command to his current position, which he fulfills from an expansive corner office in a tastefully renovated brick mill building in Manchester, overlooking the Merrimack River and the churning waters of Amoskeag Falls. I visited Long in late May. The Merrimack was running hard and fast, fed by record-setting rainfall over the previous weeks. In PSNH’s parking lot, I left my Subaru next to a Hummer and walked a landscaped path to the front door of the office building, which utilizes recycled materials and boasts a 51-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array. We sat at a conference table in Long’s office. Long and I were across from each other; at the head of the table sat Martin Murray, PSNH’s senior corporate news representative. Murray set out a voice recorder, which I found mildly unsettling. When the person I’m interviewing is recording the conversation for his own purposes, it’s typically not because he likes the sound of my voice. Perhaps naively, I’d half-expected Long to comport himself in a manner that reflected all the tales of corporate greed and malfeasance I’d heard over the prior months. I imagined him rubbing his palms together as he discussed the potential profits and slamming his fist against the table when the subject of opposition was raised. And while he didn’t quite fit within parameters I’d define as “charming,” he nonetheless expressed his views in language that was both articulate and for the most part respectful of the project’s opponents. In Long’s view, The Northern Pass isn’t just a good thing for the people of New Hampshire; it’s an opportunity of historic proportions. “I’ve never seen anything this good in my 35 years at PSNH,” he said. “If this doesn’t happen, it’s ‘shame on New Hampshire.'” But what about the statement that according to ISO New England, The Northern Pass isn’t necessary to bolster supply or reliability? The problem, Long replied, is that people simply aren’t taking a long enough view. “When people say, ‘We don’t need this for reliability today,’ I agree. Today. But if you follow that logic, we don’t need any renewables. So do we need it today? No. Can we build more natural gas? Yes. But what do we want?” The issue of what we want, both as a region and as an entire nation, is one that obviously strikes a chord with Long. At numerous points during our conversation, he commented on the general direction of our society and what he perceives as an inability to take sound, decisive action in regard to both electricity generation and, I sensed, broader issues. “Where are we going? I think it’s a weakness we have as a country right now,” he said at one point. This belief seems to have instilled in him a somewhat coldly pragmatic view of 21st-century America and her people. When the issue of climate change came up (he raised it), I was a little taken aback by the bluntness of Long’s stance: “I’m not sure society is prepared to do enough about it, so ‘You’re going to have to deal with it, folks.'” Long dismissed concerns over real-estate values; he thinks the Dannis appraisal is deeply flawed and has commissioned an appraisal of the appraisal, so to speak. “There are 1,500 miles of transmission lines in New Hampshire. To my knowledge, there’s no evidence that any of those lines has affected real estate values,” he said. “Anecdotally, there’s just as much evidence that values don’t go down.” Too, he simply doesn’t buy the argument that the new electical transmission lines, with their accompanying 80- to 135-foot towers, spaced every 800 feet, will be a blight on the landscape and a deterrent to visitors. “I don’t know of any structure that has stopped people from going to the White Mountains,” he added. In short, Gary Long argues that opponents of The Northern Pass simply aren’t seeing the big picture and don’t appreciate the noble efforts of PSNH and Hydro-Québec. He noted that when he started at PSNH, New England was relying on natural gas for less than 1 percent of its electricity. Now, it’s approaching 50 percent. And he sees parallels between the energy crisis of the 1970s and what’s happening now. “We did things, but I don’t think we did enough,” he observed, talking about the oil embargo and its aftermath. Long believes our nation is at another inflection point regarding energy: “I’ve seen many big changes, and I think we’re at another one.” Finally, Long feels frustrated that he and the company he heads have been vilified: “We’re spending millions of dollars to do what we should do … I don’t want to say it’s fun, because it’s not–these issues are never fun. But if we can get this done, it will be very exciting for the state. And when it’s done, the issues will go away.” The issues will go away. Long’s assertion brought to mind something John Amey had said when it was his turn to speak at the Ridge Runners meeting. “They still don’t get it: that there’s nothing you can pay to get someone to give up a way of life,” he told the small crowd. Amey spoke mildly, clipping his words in the manner common to the region. There was no bravado or rancor in his statement; he was simply laying out the facts as he saw them. The sky is blue, the sun is round, maple trees keep growing, there’s nothing you can pay to get someone to give up a way of life. Later that evening, after the meeting, after dinner, and after we’d returned to the Ameys’ farm, John and I stood in the doorway of the dairy barn, looking across pastures halfway through their seasonal metamorphosis from brown to green. I asked Amey what he and Cindy-Lou would do if The Northern Pass won approval and if the route across their farm became the route of choice. He didn’t hesitate: “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t tell people I’ll leave, because I won’t.” At first, I was surprised by Amey’s acquiescent reply. But the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense, because the very reason that John Amey opposes The Northern Pass is the same reason he’ll stay right where he is if it goes through: He’s connected to his land, his community, and his family. His life is here. In a sense, and perhaps ironically, he had proven Gary Long’s point: that no structure can keep people from what really matters to them. I left Pittsburg in the cool twilight of an early-spring evening, driving a sinuous ribbon of asphalt through a sparsely settled landscape. It would be many months and likely years before the fate of The Northern Pass would be known. But whether it would be approved or not, I was pretty sure of one thing: The issues it raises won’t go away, because the issues transcend any single project. They’re issues of property rights, power, and profit. They cut right to the core of our expectations and our future. And they’re inseparable from the people. The issues won’t go away, because the people won’t go away. “I know my trees,” Amey had told me, as we’d sat in the Happy Corner Cafe, waiting for dinner. “They don’t have names, but they have personalities, and I know them.” He’d spread his sausage-like fingers apart in a gesture that was probably unconscious, but nonetheless seemed to me an attempt to show me something that he couldn’t quite explain. But he needn’t have worried; I understood just fine. At press time in mid-September, changes to the northern end of the proposed route were under consideration in response to public reaction.