The battle over Northern Pass, as expected, has ended up in the courts.
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which has led opposition to the hydroelectric transmission project for the past five years, filed a lawsuit on Thursday in Coos County Superior Court, seeking to block the path of the line through a conservation area the society owns in Clarksville, near the Canadian border.
The Forest Society is asking the court to rule that Northern Pass cannot use the land, known as the Washburn Family Forest, without Forest Society consent.
In a separate action, the Forest Society on the same day filed a petition with the state Site Evaluation Committee, which received the formal application from Northern Pass Transmission on Oct. 19.
The Forest Society wants official intervenor status in the SEC proceeding, and is arguing that the application is incomplete because Northern Pass lacks the property rights for the project.
The 190-mile transmission line from the Canadian border to a substation in Deerfield is a joint project of Eversource Energy and Hydro-Quebec, and is designed to import hydroelectricity from Quebec into the New England grid.
“Northern Pass is a private entity seeking to make use of Forest Society lands for the exclusive use of Hydro-Quebec,” said attorney Tom Masland, who is representing the Forest Society in the Coos County case.
Northern Pass partners posted their response to the Forest Society actions on the Northern Pass website, writing, “We are disappointed but not surprised that the Forest Society has taken this legal action to circumvent the Site Evaluation Committee’s authority.”
Eversource officials have said in the past that the tradition of allowing utilities to run lines along highways, no matter who owns the land to the left and right, will apply for the Northern Pass project.
“We are confident that our SEC application meets the standards outlined in state statutes and SEC rules, and that the Forest Society’s claims to the contrary have no basis in fact or law,” according to Eversource.
Forest Society spokesman Jack Savage said the precedent alluded to by Eversource has applied to projects deemed necessary for electric reliability, which is not the case for Northern Pass, and that the SEC has no jurisdiction to rule on property rights.
The state Department of Environmental Services has also raised concerns about property rights along the route, but the Department of Transportation, which controls the highway access, considers the Northern Pass application complete.
Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan notified the SEC on Nov. 13 that her department has had numerous meetings with representatives of Northern Pass Transmission and their consultants.
“Given the complex nature of this project, the department anticipates executing a use and occupancy agreement for the entire project within state-maintained rights of way,” she wrote.
“We are treating this proposal the same as any utility application,” said DOT spokesman Bill Boynton.
The Forest Society and its attorneys argue that Northern Pass does not fit the description of a traditional utility, even if it ultimately succeeds in obtaining that designation from the Public Utilities Commission.
“Northern Pass Transmission is not a public utility, and this project in particular is an elective, merchant transmission project,” said Savage. “We think that makes a difference in how utilities approached potential use of public roads in the past.”
He made a distinction between Northern Pass and the Seacoast Reliability Project — a new 115-kilovolt transmission line between Madbury and Portsmouth that opponents have called the Northern Pass of the Seacoast. The regional operator of the New England grid considers the Seacoast upgrades necessary to accommodate growth in demand, but has made no such determination regarding Northern Pass.
While not designated an official “reliability project” by the grid operator, Northern Pass supporters argue that it is much needed.
“At a time when New England’s electric consumers are paying some of the highest rates in the country, it’s important to remember that all six New England governors and the regional grid operator have called for clean energy solutions to address our region’s energy crisis,” according to Eversource. “The Forest Society’s actions today are in direct conflict with achieving this important goal.”