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Utility debate turns to consumer protection

With so many major projects in play, the role of the committee has never been so politically charged. Since 2013, two bills have been signed into law that were designed to enhance public participation and provide more protections for property owners during committee deliberations, but critics say the process is moving in the opposite direction.

CONCORD - After hearing complaints that utility companies are hijacking the process used to approve controversial power projects, legislators are considering extending the time the public gets to have their say.The deadline for adopting new rules for the state's Site Evaluation Committee is now likely to be moved back, from July 1 to Nov. 1.

The committee will ultimately decide the fate of the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline, the Northern Pass transmission lines, and a variety of wind energy proposals should they obtain all the necessary federal permits.

With so many major projects in play, the role of the committee has never been so politically charged. Since 2013, two bills have been signed into law that were designed to enhance public participation and provide more protections for property owners during committee deliberations, but critics say the process is moving in the opposite direction.

The Site Evaluation Committee is headed toward a final vote on changes to rules and procedures on April 15, in the hope of filing the proposal with the Legislature in May, but that process was likely upended by a vote of the state Senate last Thursday.

Want deadline delayed

As senators... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

CONCORD - After hearing complaints that utility companies are hijacking the process used to approve controversial power projects, legislators are considering extending the time the public gets to have their say. The deadline for adopting new rules for the state's Site Evaluation Committee is now likely to be moved back, from July 1 to Nov. 1. 

The committee will ultimately decide the fate of the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline, the Northern Pass transmission lines, and a variety of wind energy proposals should they obtain all the necessary federal permits.

With so many major projects in play, the role of the committee has never been so politically charged. Since 2013, two bills have been signed into law that were designed to enhance public participation and provide more protections for property owners during committee deliberations, but critics say the process is moving in the opposite direction.

The Site Evaluation Committee is headed toward a final vote on changes to rules and procedures on April 15, in the hope of filing the proposal with the Legislature in May, but that process was likely upended by a vote of the state Senate last Thursday.

Want deadline delayed

As senators prepared to vote on legislation to improve consumer protections in the market for competitive energy supply, Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, introduced an amendment to delay the deadline for implementing new committee rules to Nov. 1, at the request of Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith.

The amendment was adopted, the overall bill was approved, and now is on its way to the House, where approval is likely.

Forrester was the main sponsor of legislation in 2013 and 2014 to get more public representation on the committee and to require that rules and procedures be revised. She said she pushed for the delay at the request of constituents.
"The whole idea of my bills, the whole changing of the SEC, was premised on the idea that we needed more public input with regard to impact on communities, siting criteria and that kind of thing, and I think they (the committee) have been listening," said Forrester. "But there was a feeling that more time was needed to ensure that the public was being heard, and that the siting rules or criteria would reflect what the public wanted to see in the criteria."

Forrester said there is a lot of disappointment with the process among everyday citizens who've participated so far.

"There has been a lot of public involvement at the hearings, but those comments don't seem to be reflected in what is being proposed, so we want to give more time to make sure that's addressed," she said. "It's all about trust, and I feel like a lot of my constituents don't have a lot of faith or trust in government or the process. They see criteria or ideas that the lobbyists have brought forward reflected in the proposals, but not what they have brought forward, so there are some concerns that they are not being heard."

Volunteer participants

Dorothy McPhaul of Sugar Hill, an opponent of the Northern Pass hydroelectric project, was a volunteer participant in two of the working groups established to address public concerns in the Site Evaluation Committee process.

"Public participants quickly realized there were almost as many paid representatives of industry (attorneys, lobbyists and others) as there were public members," she said in a recent letter to the committee. "We protested vehemently their participation, but were overruled. Paid representatives are only concerned with promoting rules beneficial to their employers, in this case, energy companies."

Michael J. Iacopino, a Manchester attorney who has served for years as independent counsel to the committee, said such claims reflect a misunderstanding of what is meant by "public."

"There is a perception that people are claiming that somehow their views aren't being taken into account, but they misunderstand the process itself," he said. "There are some people who object to the industry being involved at all. We can't eliminate the industry. They are a part of the public. They have as much a right as anyone else to participate in the process."

Participation is one thing, but many citizen participants like McPhaul believe the industry representatives are guiding, not participating, in the process.

"We understand where that fear comes from," said Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. "The fear that powerful forces who hire expensive lobbyists will somehow be able to influence the outcome of the rules under which those same forces will operate and propose things."

Rules called too broad

The SPNHF was among four environmental groups that wrote to the committee in late February, expressing concern that the proposed rules are too broad and do not establish specific criteria for determining whether "issuance of a certificate will serve the public interest."

The organizations - Appalachian Mountain Club, Audubon Society of New Hampshire, Conservation Law Foundation, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Nature Conservancy - offered language to address those concerns in October, but it did not find its way into the draft now under consideration.

According to Iacopino, the committee will continue its deliberations on that draft as if the July 1 deadline is still in place, until Forrester's amendment clears the House and is signed into law by Gov. Maggie Hassan.

A final review

That means the committee will meet again on April 2 for one last review of the proposed rules, and on April 15 will vote on whether to adopt the draft and send it along to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.

"Until there is something official, we have to go on the same time-frame," said Iacopino. "It could be that the House doesn't concur; it could be that the governor vetoes the bill. Right now we have to continue on the schedule we have."
Committee Chairman Martin P. Honigberg, who also serves as chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission, has said he would not oppose any delay, according to Iacopino.

"The chairman at the most recent hearing on the rules expressed that this is very difficult to do within the time frame the Legislature has given us," Iacopino said. "He expressed that he understood there may be an extension, and if so, there will likely be more process."


Source: http://www.unionleader.com/...

MAR 22 2015
http://www.windaction.org/posts/42397-utility-debate-turns-to-consumer-protection
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