Utilities find no common ground on N. Pass

As deadline missed, state officials promise update in a week

THE STATE’S UTILITIES blew through a deadline on Friday to come up with a decision or at least a series of next steps for dealing with the fallout from the rejection of Northern Pass by New Hampshire regulators.

Northern Pass, a partnership of Hydro-Quebec and Eversource Energy to import hydropower from Canada into New England via a transmission line through New Hampshire, was selected as the winner of a major Massachusetts clean energy procurement on January 25.

A week later New Hampshire regulators voted unanimously to deny a permit the project needs to begin construction of the transmission line. A day after the vote Judith Judson, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, asked the state’s utilities to come to a joint decision by Friday on whether to move forward with Northern Pass or to terminate those talks and pick another project.

By 5 p.m. on Friday, no announcement was forthcoming. CommonWealth learned that state officials and an independent evaluator hired to monitor the contracting process met with the utilities in the morning, reiterated a “desire for swift action,” and requested a firm timetable for reaching a decision. No firm timetable was established, but state officials promised additional information by next Friday.

Baker administration officials declined to comment on the record, but it seems likely the state’s utilities – Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil – were unable to come to an agreement.

The situation is fascinating because the procurement was authorized by an act of the Legislature and it appears that the state’s utilities are driving the process. The situation is complicated by the fact that Eversource, one of the utilities, is also a partner in Northern Pass.

Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday sent a letter to Judson urging her to make sure that representatives from her office and the independent evaluator are in the room when decisions are being made about what do with Northern Pass. Healey said her reading of the law leads her to believe any decisions must be made jointly by the same group that selected Northern Pass, which was made up of officials from the utilities and the Baker administration with the independent evaluator in a monitoring role.

Judson did not respond to the attorney general’s letter, according to Healey’s office.

Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Healey, reiterated the attorney general’s position on Friday. “It is the job of the evaluation committee, not the utilities alone, to determine next steps and the viability of Northern Pass,” she said in a statement. “It is unclear why the evaluation team was unable to move forward this week when all parties have recognized the importance of swift action. Our office continues to call on the evaluation team to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”

It appears the utilities met privately during the week and then met with officials from the Department of Energy Resources and the independent evaluator on Friday, although utility officials have suggested that the meetings during the week have included all parties. It’s possible lower-level officials met during the week and then higher-ups held talks on Friday.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who strongly supported Northern Pass, told a New Hampshire radio station that the project’s rejection by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee was a big loss.

He said the committee looked at two of four issues it was required to assess and stopped working after concluding that Northern Pass would have a negative impact on tourism, property values, and land use. He said the committee didn’t review the remaining two issues and didn’t consider whether Northern Pass would be willing to address the committee’s concerns.

“The ball was on the five yard line and the referee stepped in and said game over,” the governor said. Sununu said the entire process is not conducive to looking at new ideas, which is too bad because the region needs the power to bring electricity prices down. “You can’t just say no to everything,” he said.