MONTPELIER -- An environmental group this week appealed Vermont's decision to withhold documents related to a multistate initiative to improve energy infrastructure in the region.
The Conservation Law Foundation in March filed a public records request to all six New England states involved in crafting a plan to attract investments in projects that would bring Canadian hydropower and natural gas to the region.
After receiving CLF's request, Vermont withheld an unknown number of documents. The governor's office said in a statement that the documents involve political and legal advice and are protected under executive and attorney-client privileges.
The infrastructure initiative for the six states would use electric ratepayers' money to pay for transmission and pipeline projects. CLF says the process of developing this proposal, which could cost consumers billions of dollars, should be more transparent.
The New England States Committee on Electricity, a group of members appointed by the six governors to represent the state on energy matters, is developing a proposal expected to be completed by fall.
NESCOE did not provide any of the documents that CLF requested, the group said. CLF is now appealing the decision. A NESCOE representative could not be reached by phone or email Thursday.
Natural gas constraints leading to record-high winter price spikes, stricter renewable energy targets and looming electricity supply shortfalls are cited as reasons why the New England governors came together last year to announce the plan.
Sandra Levine, a senior attorney with CLF, said state officials have not given enough consideration to alternatives the group says would cost ratepayers less and reduce the region's reliance on fossil fuels such as natural gas.
"What we've seen so far shows an incredible amount of industry input with the potential to overbuild both gas pipelines and transmission at a high cost to New England electric customers," Levine said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin cautioned recently that overbuilding energy infrastructure could leave the region stuck paying for unnecessary costs.
Levine agrees with the governor. She said the stakeholders should be considering ways to drive down electricity consumption, build more renewable generation such as wind and solar in New England, and store excess natural gas during the summer. The current "oversized" proposal, she said is "putting too many eggs in too few baskets."
Chris Recchia, the commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said the state is pitching energy efficiency and distributed generation such as wind and solar to regional partners.
He said the state is also pushing for accurate estimates of the current proposals to bring power and gas into the region. The state's transmission entity, VELCO, has said that developers have grossly underestimated several multibillion dollar transmission line projects proposed for the region.
Recchia said this is the first time the six states have attempted to draft an energy policy together. He said much of the work requires the governors and their staffs to share possible plans.
"That said, no decisions are made in a vacuum or behind closed doors," he said.
The states have not decided on how the cost of these investments would be split among the region's ratepayers and federal regulators would also have to approve the final proposal.
CLF has filed appeals in Vermont and in Massachusetts. The group is requesting more documents from the Department of Public Service and the governor's office. Both legally have five days to respond, but Shumlin's office has asked for an extension and Recchia said the department may ask for an extension, too.
A full statement from the Govenor's Office on the appeal is below:
"As CLF has noted, the Governor's Office promptly produced just over 100 records in response to CLF's initial request. Certain documents were withheld as executive privileged communications and as attorney client communications because they involve communications between senior appointed state officials providing advice to the Governor or legal advice from NESCOE and other states. Nevertheless, as with all public record act appeals, we will review and respond to ensure that all public material has been produced.
"The Department of Public Service and NESCOE have sought public input regarding this process, and Vermont will continue to seek as much public participation as possible while protecting the states' ability to effectively solicit and negotiate any proposed regional agreement, should one come to fruition. Of course, any particular project that emerged from that process would also be subject to thorough state permitting review, whether sited here or elsewhere.
"The Governor shares CLF's concerns that any regionally coordinated energy project provide real and specific benefits to Vermont at the right price, built to avoid higher and stranded costs down the road. Such projects also should occur only in the context of a review of appropriate and cost-effective alternative measures such as efficiency, distributed generation, demand response, and market rules and coordination. That review is required in Vermont's siting process, and we believe this should also guide the region's decisions. Governor Shumlin will continue to work with his fellow governors on regional energy solutions with this in mind."