Under intense public scrutiny, the New Hampshire Senate last week approved a bill that supposedly sets limits on the use of eminent domain to seize property for public projects and excludes using it for privately-funded projects.
That would seem to exclude the controversial Northern Pass project, a proposed 180-mile transmission line that would bring hydroelectric power south from Canada through the White Mountains to central New Hampshire. Northern Pass is being proposed by a joint effort of Northeast Utilities, NSTAR and HydroQuebec, all private companies.
The power brought down from Canada is not meant for New Hampshire, but would be sold on the open market.
Northern Pass had been quietly suggesting they might pursue eminent domain if they ran into property owners unwilling to sell. They have already spent some $4 million buying up land along the route, but ran into a roadblock when the owners of the Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch sold a key parcel to a conservation group instead.
Opponents of the project packed the visitors gallery during the Senate proceedings, and were cheered by the vote, which they saw as another setback for the developers.
The celebration might be premature.
There seems to be a loophole (isn’t there always?) big enough to drive a utility truck through. The bill allows eminent domain to be used for energy projects if it is shown that the project would be beneficial for the environment. And a late amendment puts some of the decision-making powers into the hands of ISO-New England, a power regulator that works closely with the companies involved in the project.
It might be worth noting that ISO-New England supports the re-licensing of the rickety old Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, completely disregarding a long list of safety issues. They probably wouldn’t blink twice at ripping a transmission line through some of the most beautiful landscape in New England.