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New Hampshire Gets It Right and Gets It Wrong

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Last Wednesday the New Hampshire State Senate made a respectable show of political will and passed a resolution legalizing gay marriage 14-10. The freedom of same-sex couples in New Hampshire to marry is now in the hands of John Lynch, the historically wishy-washy Democratic Governor. If Lynch lets the bill pass, it will make New Hampshire the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. I ask in light of this, if New Hampshire's legislature can be ahead of 44 other states on social issues, how can they be dead last on energy? They are, and the very same Senators who showed the courage to stand up to bigotry and prejudice displayed an inchworm's spine as they let big coal interests run them over, back their big trucks full of coal up, and run them over again.

Here's the story so far:

New Hampshire, like many places, has a gargantuan fossil-fuel burning, greenhouse gas emitting coal plant. Like many coal plants, Merrimack Station in Bow emits ton upon ton of mercury and by law must undergo expensive upgrades to meet new regulations. In 2006, the New Hampshire legislature voted (unanimously) to authorize the installation of a mercury "scrubber" which will reduce the plant's mercury emissions. It was a good idea at the time and everyone rightfully patted themselves on the backs for it. The cost was estimated at $250 million.

Last summer, however, Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), the utility, suddenly needed $457 million to complete the project, and have staunchly refused to provide an accounting of the new costs -- the kind of accounting-free, oversight-devoid spending that would later enrage America when it found out about the excessive AIG bonuses that were paid for with taxpayer money. They vaguely chalked the increase up to an increase in transportation, steel and labor costs -- remember the summer of 2008 when everyone had a job and gas costs four dollars? The price of scrap steel was nearly double what it is now too -- but those times are over, and if that's the reason for the cost increase, the cost that should be over too. Still, PSNH is insisting that it needs $457 million to complete the project.

If that's not enough, studies that take actually take into account the implied costs of the scrubber -- near-future modifications to meet regulations on additional mercury reduction, water pollution and carbon emissions (which the scrubber will do nothing to reduce) estimate that the actual cost of keeping this plant up to code is somewhere between 1 and 3 billion dollars. New Hampshire State Senator Harold Janeway, a guy sensible enough to think "we said yes to $250 million, not $3 billion" introduced a bill that would require a study of the costs to determine if the project is still worthwhile. (If you agreed to take someone on a blind date, then found out dinner would cost $300, you might want to see a picture first, no?) All the bill asked for was a 90-day pause in construction while the new costs were being reviewed.

Anyway, the State Senate just voted 22-1 against this cost review, leaving Janeway as the lone Yea and bearer of good sense.

Here's their convergence of political impotence, retrograde policy and straight-up bad math. Merrimack Station employs 1,200 people. The installation of the scrubber will add 300 temporary jobs to the plant. That's 1,500 jobs, 1,200 of them permanent -- or as permanent as a job can be at an institution that is likely to be illegal in six years. If we take the medium estimate of 2 billion dollars that would be required in improvements, that comes out to 1.3 million dollars per employee. I'm as big a champion for handsome compensation for jobs in this sector as anyone, but 1.3 million per employee could be spent on transitioning these workers to clean energy solutions with cash to spare for infrastructure and development. When we talk about green-collar jobs, we're talking about getting out of these situations that are bad for our planet and pocketbooks alike.

Nonetheless, management claimed that even a 90-day pause would lead to immediate job losses -- a scare tactic designed to get labor on board together and form this alliance that could best reason and logic in the legislature -- and as planned, 13 of the 14 Senators progressive enough to vote to recognize same-sex marriage in New Hampshire voted to turn a blind eye to backward energy and fiscal policy.

There are two lawsuits pending against PSNH on behalf of ratepayers, and the EPA just launched an investigation into PSNH mandating that they reveal many of the expenditures relating to the scrubber -- but construction still continues on it.

The time will come when all states recognize gay marriage, and the time will come when carbon-belching plants like Merrimack Station are left behind for solutions that lead to a healthy planet and healthy profits. New Hampshire should reverse course on the scrubber and lead the way on both.

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