One of the most frustrating aspects of government is that those it purports to represent don’t often have the power to demand that their interests be fully considered. This is never as evident as in the technical legalese of bureaucratic regulation, language often written by, or for, corporate interests at the expense of the public.
And, it seems, even attempts to rein in such language to bring clarity to the regulatory process cannot survive the sway of lobbying efforts.
The N.H. Site Evaluation Committee is charged with assessing all major energy projects in the state, although some projects are still subject to federal approval. With the Northern Pass, Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, wind farms and other potentially controversial projects in the works, the committee will have its hands full in determining what amount of environmental, economic and aesthetic disruption is to be endured for the sake of eventual lower electric rates or grid security.
With an eye toward this, the Legislature last year revamped the committee’s makeup and charged it with becoming more attentive to “the public good.” Two members were added, and the law specified they be members of the public rather than bureaucrats or lawmakers. The committee was told to rewrite its regulations, being more specific about what criteria it would take into consideration, to provide clarity regarding how it assesses projects.
Among the evaluation criteria the law mandates the panel consider is that: “The site and facility will not have an unreasonable adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, and public health and safety.”
So the committee came up with more specific rules. Most specifically, its rewrites made clear the importance of protecting local communities. For example, wording that the committee consider a generic “public interest” was changed to require members consider: “whether the beneficial and adverse effects of the facility, including the costs and benefits to energy consumers, property owners, state and local tax revenues, employment opportunities, and local and regional economies serve the public interest.”
At which point the state’s utilities balked, calling the new guidelines “onerous.” That’s corporate-speak for “this could cost us.”
The more general the definition of “public interest” is, the easier it is for corporate representatives to make a case that a project somehow benefits everyone. And the broader the scope the panel considers, the less likely it is to be swayed by any damaging effects to specific communities.
Instead of complaining to the committee, the state’s utilities opted for a more tried-and-true route. They lobbied the state’s lawmakers, and found enough members of the Joint Legislative Committee for Administrative Rules, which must OK the rules changes, to force another rewrite that, while not as nebulous as the original rules, is not as specific as it might have been. Most tellingly, they’ve removed references to effects on or consideration of “local or regional” scope or to property owners, instead referring only to statewide environmental or economic effects.
There’s a case to be made, certainly, that the state’s energy infrastructure needs might outweigh the concerns of property owners, abutters and others along the path of or within view of energy projects.
But it’s disheartening to see an effort to make clear who has a legitimate stake in such proposals be thwarted politically. Someone in Concord has to be looking out for the everyday citizen. If they’re not, why did we send them there?