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New England States Committee on Energy criticized over lack of transparency

Luther Turmelle | New Haven Register

A group created last December by governors in the six New England states to plan for the future expansion of energy infrastructure in the region is now being criticized for not being transparent in its operations.

The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation has filed appeals with officials in Vermont and Massachusetts claiming the group the governors created, the New England States Committee on Energy (NESCOE), is withholding public documents regarding the planning process. Seth Kaplan, the Conservation Law Foundation’s Vice President for Policy and Climate Advocacy, said Thursday that Vermont in particular was chosen for the appeal because its freedom of information laws are considered the most favorable in the regions when it comes to transparency.

“It’s absolutely a slam dunk in terms of getting the information we’re looking for under the Vermont laws,” Kaplan said. “These decisions are being made by industry insiders and ‘official’ government consumer advocates. What being decided is important, not only because it’s going to affect people’s energy bills, but it’s going to set an agenda for the region for decades to come.”

NESCOE is discussing electric transmission line projects as well as plans to expand natural gas pipelines that bring the fuel into the region. The Conservation Law Foundation requested documents from NESCOE regarding its work in March, but has not yet received them.

Kaplan said he is disappointed in Connecticut’s willingness to participate in NESCOE, give the state’s record for transparency in the past.

Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the region’s states “are committed to doing things by the rules.”

“This is new ground for states in the region,” Schain said. “We’ve been working through this with stakeholders groups and others in the energy world to vet concepts associated with this initiative. If pieces of it do move forward, there will be a competitive RFP and opportunities for public comment as well as approvals need by utility regulatory bodies in the different states.”

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Sandy Levine, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement that documents the group has obtained from individual states regarding NESCOE’s operations show “outright hostility to conducting the planning process in the open, pervasive and improper influence by the companies that stand to benefit from the plan, and a troubling willingness on the part of NESCOE and state officials to take enormous risks with our money, our region’s energy progress, and our climate.”

“NESCOE’s secrecy thwarts effective and smart resolutions,” Levine said. “We all should have a chance to fully understand what we will be buying with this proposed regional energy plan. CLF’s appeals seek to bring an open process based on sound research and analysis, rather than backroom dealings with industry insiders.”

Officials with NESCOE, based out of Westborough, Massachusetts, were not immediately available for comment Thursday.

Joel Gordes, a West Hartford-based energy industry consultant, said efforts to expand transmission lines and natural gas pipelines in the region deserve increased scrutiny.

“We’ve had to many watchdogs of authority eliminated,” Gordes said. “You’re going to be stuck with a hell of a lot of stranded costs if it turns out that the estimates of demand for natural gas turn out to be wrong,”

Kaplan said a more open process would force NESCOE and government officials in the six states to examine less costly alternatives, particularly as it relates to expanding the network of natural gas pipelines.

“There are ways to tweak the existing natural system so that it will bump up the capacity,” he said.

Schain said the states disagree.

“We just don’t see that you could close the gap between what we have and we need without some kind of expansion,” he said.

One of the region’s higher profile electric transmission projects, Northern Pass, would cost $1.4 billion to bring hydropower down from Quebec to southern New Hampshire. Ballpark estimates for natural gas pipeline expansion project also anticipates billions of dollars being spent.

 

Call Luther Turmelle at 203-789-5706.

 

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