Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Northern Pass Sorting Out Reality

Justice Douglas
Sock it to those robber barons

Public land is a public trust

How does a citizen of New Hampshire, living on the seacoast begin to sort out the competing claims flying back and forth about the efforts to bring hydroelectric power down from Canada across pristine New Hampshire scenery in the form of power wires strung between steel derricks, cut through forests?

Listen to the men who work for the power companies, the people who stand to profit from power lines running across their land (and on to their neighbors' land) and you would think those who oppose the power lines are foggy minded, tree hugging types who would thwart economic growth, who are willing to put the nation at risk for increased dependency on foreign oil, all in a misguided attempt to see themselves as the heroes in a passion play which pits the virtuous environmentalists against the avaricious capitalists who care only for making a profit and leaving town, with no concern about the rape of the environment. The power company men say they are being hard headed, smart and they are, ultimately operating in the public's interest because you need power to drive the American economy, and this Northern Pass power line will bring power from Canada, not from Saudi Arabia. 

Listen to the opponents of the power line proposal and you hear a simple message: This is environmental rape for private profit.  As for any economic gains, these will be scarfed up by the men employed by the power companies, and the stockholders, but the citizens of New Hampshire will lose, in the end, because the pristine wilderness which draws the tourist dollar will be defiled.  Their argument is essentially aesthetics, but they stretch it to cover an economic argument as well.

So, who do you believe?

On the face of it, one would think the power from Canada argument has lost its force, now that fracking has produced an energy boom in the United States. We are about to become energy independent without the Northern Pass. We don't need it. 

A similar fight is happening over a different sort of line, a pipeline,  across some Western states, but there the source of power is dirty oil shale in Canada, so the environmental impact, globally may be an easier case to make.

So, who do we believe? And how do we go about figuring out how to know who to believe.

For enlightenment, Mad Dog looks to...Fiction. Movieland. Chinatown, to be precise. In that story, a private entrepreneur wants to corner the market on water in the Los Angeles basin, but his virtuous partner resists that notion, insisting things like water (and one might substitute here "power") ought to belong to the people, in the public domain, not be owned by private capital.  So, to Mad Dog, the power people who want the Northern Pass look like Noah Cross in Chinatown.

Or, one can look to that other form of fiction, history.  In the mid 20th century, road developers wanted to run a big highway 180 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, right down into the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., paving over the C&O canal and its towpath, which runs hard by the Potomac River. The road building companies had a bunch of Congressmen in their pockets.   Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, a liberal and a fervent outdoorsman, led a group of newspaper reporters, Congressmen, wildlife enthusiasts on a week long trek along the canal, where they saw fox, beaver, great blue heron, deer, eagles, osprey.  By the time Douglas reached Trav's tavern at Glen Echo, Maryland, just a few miles from Georgetown, the newspapers had daily front page stories depicting the road builders as killers of birds, beaver and Bambi.  Congressmen who had supported the road were running for cover and the road plan collapsed. The canal and towpath became the most intensively used national park in the entire National Park system.  Even today, just a few miles from the Capital building, along the canal you can see beaver and fox.  In fact, beaver hump up the hill and are occasionally spotted foraging around the campus of Georgetown University. The towpath is part of an extensive bicycle path and you can ride your bicycle from Georgetown more than a hundred miles north without ever crossing a road with an automobile. 

So, knowing nothing more about the details of the Northern Pass, until proven otherwise, Mad Dog chooses to believe the environmentalists on this one and he tends to see the power company entrepreneurs as just so many Noah Cross types, looking to rape and profit.

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