Public counsel raises questions at Laidlaw technical session
May 12, 2010
BERLIN — Attorneys squared off on Wednesday for the first of two state Site Evaluation Committee technical sessions for the review of the Laidlaw Berlin Biomass proposal.
The session provided a chance for the intervenors to ask for clarification to responses Laidlaw provided to initial data requests. It also provided an opportunity to request additional materials.
The meeting lasted most of the day Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with the public counsel dominating most of that time. It was held in the city hall auditorium.
SEC members did not attend the meeting. The SEC's attorney Michael Iacopino took notes while the public counsel and intervenors asked Laidlaw questions ranging from who will own the underlying assets to how they will address the noise.
Around the table for Laidlaw were representatives from ESS Group, the environmental engineering firm assisting them with their application, Landvest, the company they commissioned to conduct their wood study, representatives from Homeland Renewable Energy, a partners in the project, Barry Needleman of the McLane law firm, and Micheal Bartoszek, Ray Kusche and Lou Bravakis from Laidlaw.
On the other side were attorneys and representatives from the City of Berlin, the Sierra Club and Clean Power Development, as well as the public counsel appointed by the state. Neither the Coös County Commissioners nor Wagner Forest Management sent representatives.
The counsel for the public, represented by attorneys Peter Roth and Allen Brooks asked for more information in a number of areas and indicated they would need to see more before they would approve the project.
"What can the people of Berlin count on in terms of the project and jobs?" Mr. Brooks asked.
"No business can predict its own future and answer with any certainty," Mr. Bartoszek replied. "We think the people of Berlin can expect this project to be around for a long time."
Mr. Roth said he doesn't see a business plan, which would be a necessity before the public counsel will sign off on the project. He also said he didn't see anyone within the organization with the experience necessary to raise the funding necessary to move forward.
Mr. Bartoszek said one of the representatives from Homeland Renewable Energy, Carl Strickler, had experience raising similar amounts of money. Mr. Strickler said in 2004 he raised $200 million for a biomass project.
Mr. Roth came back to the business plan issue: "To not have a financial model in your own pocket, it seems a little reckless."
"If this project doesn't make financial sense it's not going to get funded," Mr. Bartoszek responded.
Mr. Roth pointed out relying on the market won't meet the SEC's requirement of proving financial viability.
He asked if Laidlaw expects to have financing by the time the SEC makes a ruling. Mr. Bartoszek said no, the SEC permit will be an important piece in order to find financing.
A purchase power agreement is another important piece for the project. Without it, Mr. Bartoszek said, the proposal won't move forward. The public counsel asked a number of questions about Laidlaw's negotiations with Public Service of New Hampshire, but Mr. Bartoszek said he couldn't answer most of them because of nondisclosure agreements.
PSNH came up in other parts of the discussion as well. Mr. Brooks asked a number of questions about the ownership structure of the project, such as who would be the owner of the assets.
Mr. Bartoszek said PJPD Holdings would own the assets, and Laidlaw would be the developer.
Mr. Roth asked if PSNH owns any of the entities that will own the project, even partially.
"I can tell you unequivocally that's not true," Mr. Bartoszek said. "PSNH has no ownership interest in any of those."
The public counsel also touched on wood availability, ash disposal and transportation questions, among other things.
After the public counsel came the city, which asked about noise and appearance.
The attorney for Clean Power Development asked a few questions about transmission, and he then asked if CPD president Mel Liston could ask some questions about wood supply. The discussion quickly turned sour, with CPD and Laidlaw each questioning the viability of the other's project.
Attorney Iacopino had to step in to quiet the debate.
"This is not a cross examination per se," he said. "You'll get a chance to do that at the adjudicative hearing."
The Sierra Club went last.
"What the Sierra Club cares about is whether you're fuel usage will be sustainable," said Sierra Club attorney Arthur Cunningham.
Mr. Roth echoed his comments.
"You could be a leader in this area," he said, particularly if they are the largest regional wood consumer.
Laidlaw responded they are still researching how to best approach sustainable harvesting.
The SEC will hold a second technical session in Berlin on June 25, and the adjudicative hearings will be August 23 to 26. The SEC's decision on the project is scheduled for September 23.