Three environmental groups have joined forces to fund a new advertising campaign calling on developers of the Northern Pass to bury the entire 180 miles of power lines designed to bring hydro power from Quebec into the New England grid.
The campaign points to plans for underground power lines in Maine, Vermont, New York and Quebec, with the tagline, "Everywhere we look, we see high voltage transmission lines being buried ... Everywhere except New Hampshire."
Partners in the campaign include the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Jack Savage, a spokesman for the forest society, said the three groups routinely cooperate on legislative issues when they find common ground.
A spokesperson for Northern Pass said the projects alluded to in the campaign exist only on paper. "These are trial balloon projects that may or may not get off the ground," said Lauren Collins, "but it is disingenuous to compare them to Northern Pass."
The push to bury the Northern Pass, if it gets built at all, comes as the state Legislature begins deliberations on SB200, sponsored by Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, and designed to encourage burial of utility lines through the state's Site Evaluation Committee process.
The bill instructs the SEC to favor projects that are buried and sets up a process by which transmission developers can get access to transportation corridors. Bradley's bill was the focus of a well-attended hearing on Wednesday.
Representatives of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) testified in opposition. Tom Seaman, a high-voltage cable splicer and an expert in underground transmission lines, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that underground cables are "simply not suitable for every application, and they aren't suitable for New Hampshire."
Seaman said the Granite State's rocky terrain is part of the problem.
"There is a reason no major underground transmission lines exist in the state today," he said. "They are simply not economical, and they won't be for the foreseeable future."
The Forest Society has worked for years against the Northern Pass by purchasing land or obtaining easements designed to block its route. "As of last September, our board refined its position to say that if at some point there is some value in allowing Hydro-Quebec to export more power, then it should be buried along transportation lines," Savage said.
With Bradley's legislation pending, the three environmental groups decided to take cooperative action with help from The Secret Agency, based in Rollinsford. "They've done other work for us on Northern Pass, and they work with us regularly on our magazine," said Savage.
The name of the agency is consistent with the somewhat stealthy nature of the campaign so far. Savage was reluctant to reveal much about the budget, media strategy or future direction of the effort.
"Any time we do anything like this, our resources come from donors," he said, "So in large part, what we'll be able to do depends on the people who step up and are willing to help us pay for such things. The thought is that perhaps with all three of organizations working together, we can generate the revenue to create a greater presence."
The campaign points to the Northeast Energy Link, an underground project along Interstate 95 in Maine; the New England Clean Power Link in Vermont; and the Champlain-Hudson Express, which calls for underground lines in New York and Quebec.
Unlike those projects, the ad states, "Northern Pass instead proposes to use outdated technology to drape 180 miles of overhead transmission line on 1,500 towers across two-thirds of the state. Burial would avoid the scar."
The text goes on to note that, "The New Hampshire Department of Transportation has identified four existing state-owned transportation corridors that could host underground utility infrastructure. NH would get revenue from leasing such state-owned rights of way."
Northern Pass partners, led by PSNH, have agreed to bury eight miles of the line along the most contentious part of the route. They have consistently maintained that burying much more would make the energy so costly as to render the project impractical.
"At a time when there is broad agreement that New England is facing a growing energy crisis, it is highly irresponsible of these organizations to deliberately mislead the public by comparing various conceptual transmission projects with Northern Pass," said Collins.
Christophe Courchesne, a staff attorney for CLF New Hampshire, said the projects cited in the campaign are arguably less theoretical than Northern Pass.
"It is true that in the case of the projects in Maine and Vermont, the project partners are still to be named," he said. "But if you look at the New York project and its connection in Quebec, that is a project with state approvals, a draft Environmental Impact Statement, a well-defined schedule, support from a variety of quarters and an investor ready to spend the money to build. That's not a theoretical project."
Savage said the Champlain-Hudson Express is well along in the permitting process and well ahead of Northern Pass, which he described as the most theoretical project of all "because they don't even have a legal route."