Recommendations from a legislative review committee are tantamount to abolishing the Site Assessment Committee – a group that has been involved in licensing energy projects in the state for decades. But there is disagreement about when is the right time for such a big change, and whether a massive overhaul is the right way to go.
The SEC is responsible for weighing the environmental impact of an energy project against the state’s energy needs, gathering public input and hearing from those who would be affected, and ultimately determining whether a project can go from the front.
In recent years, the SEC has come under fire for saying no, such as when it denied the controversial Northern Pass electricity project in 2019. The project allegedly took power lines from Canada south through the North Country and in central New Hampshire.
The roots of the SEC go back to 1971, a time of proposals for major energy projects like the Seabrook nuclear power plant. But that was in 1990, according to former SEC chairman Tom Getz, when the review process for private developers and utilities merged into one. The committee is seen as a one-stop-shop for developers to streamline the licensing process and could have an important role to play soon, given the Biden administration’s goals and funding for clean energy.
But a legislative review committee this year said the process is inefficient and inefficient, which is why some lawmakers are keen to get rid of it. Not everyone is sure this is the right approach.
“I understand that sometimes the process takes a long time, but again, is that a reason to ditch the whole system or is it a reason to sort of look at the process and make more specific adjustments rather than throw everything away? “said Jim O’Brien, director of external affairs for Nature Conservancy.
“My main concern is that I’m not entirely sure the site review committee process is broken,” O’Brien said. “The study committee, they assume that the committee and the process are broken, so we need a complete change.”
O’Brien worked to resolve some of the SEC’s questions during a similar review in 2015. At that time, the number of committee members was reduced from 15 to nine. The current study committee wants to further reduce this number. Several department heads remain with the SEC, making planning difficult, and some lawmakers don’t even think they need – or want – to be involved.
“Agency heads don’t want to be here,” said Senator Bob Giuda, a Republican from Warren, who served on this year’s study committee. At least one agency head, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, agreed.
Two issues addressed in the last review persist: lack of staff and funding. These are difficult issues to resolve because the nature of the SEC’s work is erratic and because New Hampshire has been reluctant to pay for the work from the general fund. Some years there are no applications, but when there are, they can take time and remove employees from other tasks without a clear payment mechanism. Application fees were added and an administrator position was created. The post is currently vacant.
The five-person review committee that met this year looked at these issues and came up with short and long-term solutions. In the short term, the structure of the SEC would remain, but in the long term, they were in favor of its removal.
“During these meetings, the committee determined that the current statutory structure for locating energy facilities in New Hampshire under RSA 162-H was not working,” said the committee’s final report released Oct. 1. RSA 162-H is the law that deals with the site assessment committee. The report notes that further study may be needed before the overhaul they describe can be implemented.
Rep. Michael Harrington, a Republican from Strafford, pushed for the idea of getting rid of the SEC and transferring those responsibilities to the new Department of Energy, with the decision-making part of the process taking place within the Utilities Commission.
But Energy Department attorney David Shulock reacted at a committee meeting on September 28, saying the department currently has neither the staff nor the funding to undertake the review, investigation and the implementation of state energy projects.
“There is no staff to do this job you are talking about,” he said.
Other committee members argued that now is the time to act, given the recent government reorganization related to energy. The study committee and the newly created Department of Energy were initiatives that flowed from last year’s budget bill.
“I think the time has come to do it now because we have a new Ministry of Energy,” Giuda said. “While this is still forming, the iron is hot.”
At the September 28 meeting, Giuda said he would sponsor legislation to suppress the SEC by transferring it to the Public Utilities Commission, but by Friday the iron had cooled and Giuda backed down, fearing that if the most important structural change failed this session it would be more difficult to move on in the future.
“To a certain extent, it looks like they are building the ship while they sail it,” said Jim Monahan, lobbyist and executive director of the Dupont Group. Monahan was not opposed to the proposals put forward by the panel, but said he would advocate taking more time to study the broader structural changes.
Kelly Buchanan, director of regulatory affairs at Clean Energy New Hampshire, said the funding issues identified by the report are “of particular interest to us.”
She said timing would be essential for any major structural change.
“Is the time right for the Department of Energy to take care of this?” Probably not right now, but of course we would need legislation and it will take time and allow the Department of Energy to adjust to it in terms of reorganization and to be a little more established and staffed before taking on something so big and new, ”she said.
The Senate can table a bill from October 13. The deadline for the Chamber has already passed.
House Bill 624 is the other vehicle for the changes to the SEC, a bill that was held up in the last session of the Science, Technology and Energy Committee of the Bedroom. This bill would solve at least one of the problems identified by the study committee – lowering the filing fee for challenging a decision made by the SEC administrator from $ 10,500 to $ 250.
But for now, it looks like the study committee will push back the bigger changes it hopes to see another study committee, a process that is expected to be presented in law and likely could not start until June. or July. Committee members were not happy with this solution at the end of last week, as they feared it would not leave enough time for the next study committee to work out the details of the drastic change they are considering.This story originally appeared in the NH Bulletin.
This story originally appeared in the NH Bulletin.