Committee recommends complete overhaul of panel responsible for siting energy projects
A panel of lawmakers has recommended eliminating the Site Evaluation Committee. From left to right are legislative aide Griffin Roberge, Sen. Bob Giuda, Sen. Ruth Ward, Rep. Michael Vose, Rep. Michael Harrington, and Rep. Peter Leishman. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Recommendations out of a legislative study committee amount to doing away with the Site Evaluation Committee – a group that’s handled permitting for siting energy projects in the state for decades. But there’s disagreement about when is the right time for such a significant change and whether a massive overhaul is the correct way forward.
The SEC is tasked with weighing the environmental impact of an energy project against the state’s energy needs, collecting public input and hearing from those who would be affected, and ultimately determining whether a project can move forward.
In recent years, the SEC has been criticized for saying no, such as when it denied the contentious Northern Pass power project in 2019. The project would have run power lines from Canada south through the North Country and into central New Hampshire.
The roots of the SEC date back to 1971, an era of major energy project proposals such as the Seabrook nuclear station. But it was in 1990, according to former SEC chair Tom Getz, when the review process for private developers and public utilities were combined into one. The committee is considered a one-stop shop for developers that streamlines the permitting process and could have a big role to play soon, given the Biden administration’s goals and funding for clean energy.
But a legislative study committee this year said the process is inefficient and ineffective, which is why some lawmakers are keen on getting rid of it. Not everyone is so sure that’s the right approach.
“I understand that at times, the process is lengthy, but again, is that a reason to scrap the whole system or is that a reason to sort of look at the process and make some more fine-tuned adjustments rather than tossing everything out,” said Jim O’Brien, director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy.
“My chief concern is I’m not entirely sure that the process of the Site Evaluation Committee is broken,” O’Brien said. “The study committee, they go to the assumption that the committee and the process is broken so therefore we need a wholesale change.”
O’Brien worked to address some of the SEC’s issues during a similar revision in 2015. At that time, the number of committee members was reduced from 15 to nine. The current study committee wants to lower that number further. Several department heads remain on the SEC, which makes scheduling difficult, and some lawmakers don’t think they even need – or want – to be involved.
“The agency heads don’t want to be here,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican, who served on this year’s study committee. At least one agency head, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, agreed.
Two issues tackled in the last revision persist: a lack of staff and funding. Those are tricky problems to solve because the nature of the SEC’s work is erratic and because New Hampshire has been loath to pay for the work from the general fund. In some years there are no applications, but when there are they can be time consuming, pulling employees from other duties without a clear mechanism for payment. An application fee was added, and an administrator position was created. The position is currently vacant.
The five-person study committee that met this year looked at those issues and came up with short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, the structure of the SEC would remain, but in the long term they favored scrapping it.
“During these meetings, the committee determined that the current statutory structure for energy facility siting in New Hampshire under RSA 162-H is not working,” says the committee’s final report issued on Oct. 1. RSA 162-H is the statute that addresses the Site Evaluation Committee. The report notes that more study may be needed before the overhaul they describe can be implemented.
Rep. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican, has pushed the idea of getting rid of the SEC and moving those responsibilities to the newly formed Department of Energy, with the adjudicative part of the process taking place in the Public Utilities Commission.
But Department of Energy staff attorney David Shulock pushed back at a committee meeting on Sept. 28, saying the department currently doesn’t have the staff or the funding to take on the review, investigation, and enforcement of the state’s energy projects.
“There’s no staff to do this work that you’re talking about,” he said.
Other committee members argued that now is the time to act, given recent government reorganization related to energy. Both the study committee and the newly created Department of Energy were initiatives that came out of last year’s budget bill.
“I think the time to do this is now because we have a new Department of Energy,” Giuda said. “While that is still forming, the iron is hot.”
At the Sept. 28 meeting, Giuda said he would sponsor legislation to do away with the SEC by moving it to the Public Utilities Commission, but by Friday the iron had cooled and Giuda backtracked, concerned that if the more significant structural change failed this session it would be harder to pass in the future.
“In some measure it kind of looks like they’re building the ship as they’re sailing it,” said Jim Monahan, a lobbyist and executive director of the Dupont Group. Monahan wasn’t opposed to the proposals the panel put forward but said he would advocate for taking more time to study the broader structural changes.
Kelly Buchanan, the director of regulatory affairs at Clean Energy New Hampshire, said the funding issues the report identifies are “particularly of interest to us.”
She said timing would be key when it comes to any major structural changes.
“Is the timing right for the Department of Energy to take this on? Probably not immediately, but of course we would need legislation and that will take time and allow the Department of Energy to get their feet underneath them in terms of the reorganization and be a little more established and staffed up before they would be tasked with something so large and so new,” she said.
The Senate can file proposed legislation starting on Oct. 13. The deadline for the House has already passed.
House Bill 624 is the other vehicle for changes to the SEC, a bill that was retained in the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee last session. That bill would fix at least one of the problems the study committee identified – lowering the filing fee to contest a decision made by the SEC’s administrator from $10,500 to $250.
But for now, it seems the study committee will push off the bigger changes it hopes to see to yet another study committee, a process that would have to be introduced as legislation and likely wouldn’t be able to get underway until June or July. Committee members were dissatisfied with that solution late last week, as they worried it wouldn’t allow enough time for the next study committee to iron out the details of the sweeping change they envision.
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