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Enron Redux in New England

Posted by on 14 Oct 2014 | Tagged as: Brayton Point coal plant, Cheryl Lafleur, Energy Capital Partners, Enron, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Mt. Tom Coal Plant, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Public Citizen, Rutland Herald, Times Argus

Note: the following piece appeared in September 2014 in the Sunday edition of the Rutland Herald(www.rutlandherald.com); the Times-Argus in Montpelier, VT(www.times-argus.com),  and The Recorder in Greenfield, MA(www.recorder.com).

Copyright © 2014 by Karl Meyer

ENRON REDUX

Kids: go to your parent’s bedroom and find mommy’s purse and take $110 out of it. Then go out and have some fun. Why? Because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its own creation–the Holyoke, MA-based Independent System Operator of New England (ISO-NE), just confirmed that it’s ok to steal. The theft took place in June at a rigged ISO-NE “forward market” energy auction. There, Hartford-based Energy Capital Partners made off with the public’s loot to the tune of $110 from every New England ratepayer, according to consumer watchdog Public Citizen.

In a pre-dawn, September 17th press release, FERC Chair Cheryl LaFleur argued that it was legitimate for corporate-citizen ECP to manipulate the market and pick the pockets of ratepayers from Hartford to Springfield, and Boston and Montpelier—three years in advance. That panicked missive arrived directly on the heels of two FERC Commissioners, Norman Bay and Tony Clark, issuing their own September 16th press release terming the summer ISO-NE ratepayer swindle a “non-competitive auction.” It was a tiny crack in the curtain surrounding FERC decisions. In a split vote, LaFleur and one other Commissioner voted against intervening in the bogus outcome—thus tabling it, and letting the theft stand as legitimate commerce.

Given that, I’m figuring parents would prefer their kids got the cash, rather than a clique of market manipulators. Give your child a head start.

According to Public Citizen, FERC’s failure to intervene will have New Englanders forking out and additional $1.4 billion for the inflated BTU prices ECP manipulated into place for energy to be delivered three winters hence. That, Public Citizen says, will cost each of us over a hundred bucks.

With LaFleur providing the leadership, FERC, our public watchdog on energy projects, rates, regulation and reliability, gave the nod to its puppet-cousin ISO-NE–signaling that its “independent” actions letting ECP game the auction system were acceptable business as usual.

Just like stealing from your parents, Energy Capital Partners was pretty brazen in their market rigging. What they did was purchase an old New England dinosaur, the Brayton Point coal plant in Somerset, MA in 2013. Then, just weeks later, they announced they would be closing Brayton Point–citing environmental and economic constraints. That closure was timed perfectly to influence “forward” market prices. It would take place in May 2017—creating an energy “deficit” timed to show up on the books precisely as the 2017 energy auction was to take place. That staged BTU shortfall caused the spike in prices and accepted forward market bids at ISO-NE’s auction—all to be born at the public’s expense.

ECP will profit handily from their own paper tiger—silent proceeds flowing like electric current to investors, steered directly through ECP’s five other New England venture capital energy plants. That’s how you spike an energy market. It’s the stuff investors gush over.

FERC is charged with ensuring fair pricing for the public, as well as energy reliability in a deregulated market. In its own words its core responsibility is to “guard the consumer from exploitation by non-competitive electric power companies.” It was FERC that created ISO-NE, the regional grid’s independent system operator charged with keeping the lights on in the public’s interest. It’s now clear ISO also referees sham auctions.

Maybe New Englanders won’t mind getting their pockets picked; utility bills are clever at never revealing what you’re actually paying for. But I mind–$110 isn’t chump change to me. I’m worried too that today it’s FERC that’s also overseeing virtually all the controversial energy proposals now swamping the New England region: from mega Northern Pass power lines entering from Canada, to the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, to the relicensing of five large-scale hydro projects on the Connecticut River including the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project.

Curiously, Energy Capital Partners sold the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Plant to GDF-Suez FirstLight Energy over half a decade back. Now it looks like FirstLight may be taking a page out of ECP’s market playbook. They just requested an open-ended and unprecedented “emergency” power uprate and a 20% increase in storage capacity for NMPS, due to a perceived–but as yet undocumented, energy shortfall for the coming winter. What FirstLight withheld in its lengthy application arguments to FERC, was that it is closing down its own 135 megawatt Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke this October. Create your own energy deficit. It is also an end-run around environmental relicensing studies set to take place next year. We’ll all pay.

So if you thought “no-bid” government contracts were a thing of the past and that energy market manipulation and wash-through trades were a distant echo of the Enron and Arthur Anderson scandals, think again. Given the pressing concerns of climate change and the dismal record of market manipulation, the time has arrived to re-regulate energy.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Double Standard on the Connecticut

Posted by on 09 Jul 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Riverkeeper, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, Times Argus, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following piece appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus during the first week of July.

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turners Falls


                               A River Double Standard

On June 28, 2013, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Director of Energy Projects Jeff C. Wright ruled against the US Fish & Wildlife Service as it sought two extra weeks to review hundreds of pages of just-released Proposed Study Plans for the relicensing of five Connecticut River hydro projects. “The request for a 15-day EOT to file comments on the licensee’s proposed study plans is denied.”  EOT is FERC-speak for “extension of time.”  Those studies will impact this four-state river for the next 20-40 years. Agencies joining that request included the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife, The Connecticut River Watershed Council, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, NH Dept. of Environmental Service and The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

One big reason for that request was the difficulties in evaluating the impacts of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro operations on the entire Connecticut River ecosystem.  Beginning last fall, FERC began deviating from its standardized relicensing model when it scheduled public site visits to FirstLight sites weeks before the company released a publicly-required 500-page Pre-Application Document describing its complex pumped storage operations and machinery.

This spring FERC also supported FirstLight’s expedited-request to conduct a series of complicated river flow studies this summer—an allowance falling well outside FERC’s strict licensing timelines.  In doing so they let the company schedule three days of river visits by fed/state agencies smack in the middle of their deadline to comment on FirstLight’s 434-page Updated Proposed Study Plan.  FirstLight released that document June 28th; comments to FERC are due July 15, 2013.  Even after nine meetings with the power company and FERC, many agency representatives continued to decry the lack of critical scientific detail provided in FirstLight documents.  Those were put together by its team of five consulting firms.  Ironically, those handpicked FirstLight firms will conduct the next two years of river studies—the ones meant to protect the river.  A fox and chicken coop analogy applies.

FERC is employing a legal double standard here on the Connecticut.  If you a public agency or citizen seeking protections for the ecosystem—well, even little rules are THE RULES.  At the same time it appears corporations can continuously and sometimes massively ignore federal license requirements with impunity.

In FERC’s own words, the Commission “enforces the conditions of each license for the duration of its term, and conducts project safety and environmental inspections.”  Yet today Holyoke Gas & Electric is half a decade–and counting, in violation of its 2002 agreement to construct facilities to end the evisceration of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon and other “federal trust” fish migrating downstream at their Holyoke Dam facility.  So, why have a license at all? 

Upstream in 2010 GDF-Suez FirstLight dumped some of 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir sludge directly into the Connecticut at Northfield Mountain over a 90-day period—the equivalent of 40 dump truck loads of muck per day, smack in the middle of fish migration season. Yet in current documents FERC states their inspections have never found FirstLight in violation of its license.

The US EPA found FirstLight in violation of the Clean Water Act in August of 2010 and ordered a massive clean-up, though the ecosystem damage was already done.  In an August 4, 2010 letter EPA sanctioned FirstLight for violating “FERC License No. 2485” and polluting the “navigable waters of the United States.”  A subsequent letter dated August 10, 2013 from FERC’s Biological Resources Branch Chief Steve Hocking to FirstLight Manager John Howard specifically referenced the EPA’s sanctions, directing him to “article 20 of your license.”  Yet there is virtually no FERC mention of that egregious violation in current relicensing documents.

That’s the standard that for-profit companies are held to here.  It rivals the Pirate Code.  Currently there is no watchdog entity on this river willing to go to the mat to protect the ecosystem.  If, like on the Hudson, there was an organization like Riverkeeper—which cites “enforcement” as one of its main responsibilities, these egregious injuries to the Connecticut would not likely stand.  Holyoke Gas & Electric would have been in court long ago for killing endangered sturgeon; and the full range of FirstLight’s lethal impacts on the Connecticut’s migratory fish when all are diverted into their turbine-filled power canal would’ve been fully investigated.  FERC’s inaction is a disgrace.

FERC Director Wright requested that questions regarding that EOT denial go to Ken Hogan at: 202-502-8434, or Kenneth.Hogan@ferc.gov. Ken has presided over the CT River relicensing hearings.  Also, you can find FirstLight’s 434-page “Updated Proposed Study Plan” at: www.northfieldrelicensing.com under Documents.  The public has until July 15, 2013 to send comments on that plan to FERC.  You do that at: www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp .  You must cite FirstLight’s project numbers, P-2485 and P-1889, and be sure to note that you are commenting on the “Updated Proposed Study Plan.”

Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He lives in Greenfield, MA. Read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com

Mirror to the Past: a legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Posted by on 21 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Anne Makepeace, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dead Reach, didymo, federal trust fish, Jessie Little Doe, Narragansett, Pilgrims, Rock Dam, Rock Snot, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, Times Argus, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wampanoag, William Pynchon

The following essay appeared on the November OpEd pages of the Rutland Herald, Times Argus, Greenfield Recorder, and Daily Hampshire Gazette.

December 21, 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer     All Rights Reserved

A Mirror to the Past: the legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Some history is worth repeating.  In Deerfield, MA on November 9th I listened as independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace introduced, “We Still Live Here” in a church at a place once called Pocumtuck.  There in 1638, Springfield’s William Pynchon bargained with the Pocumtuck for 500 dirt-cheap bushels of corn—selling it at inflated prices to Connecticut colonists who’d run out of food while warring against the Pequot.  The Pequot massacre at Fort Mystic, as well as Pynchon’s low-ball trading, established a posture toward Native Americans that overran a continent.

But Ms. Makepeace’s documentary displayed a clear sensitivity in depicting the 18-year odyssey of a Wampanoag woman, Jessie Little Doe.  Through vision and genius, a seemingly-everyday working mom has begun reviving the spoken Wampanoag language, last heard over a century ago.  At Mashpee and Gay Head, MA, a bedrock tongue of indigenous North America is again being taught and spoken, where starving Pilgrims first encountered it.

The next evening the Associated Press published a story: ‘Rock Snot’ Fear Means Salmon For Native Tribes.  It told how the disaster of an invasive alga picked up by thousands of hatchery salmon at the US Fish &Wildlife Service’s flooded White River National Fish Hatchery during Tropical Storm Irene was turning into a curious windfall for Native Americans.  The USFWS and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) had just unanimously voted to give free fish to the Indians.

The headline was unfortunate, sounding like the tribes were being used.  CRASC’s half-billion-dollar CT River salmon restoration had had another dismal year—returning just 106 fish.  The Irene flood was the second million-dollar disaster befalling the White River VT hatchery in 4 years.  Giving a tiny portion of the facility’s half-million surviving fish might play better in the media than advertising a likely fate for most—killing and burying the lot to avoid releasing rock-snot-infested salmon and trout to New England rivers and Great Lakes habitats.

Filed from Montpelier, VT, the story sketched that morning’s CRASC meeting at Turners Falls, MA, once known as Peskeomscut, just 7 miles from Pocumtuck.  It missed some substance an attending reporter might’ve caught–that CRASC Chair Bill Hyatt had become chairman that day; that it was his first meeting ever.  Hyatt’s quotes hit the media so quickly—hours after the meeting, it might appear someone had been spoon fed a cheery “salmon-for-the-Indians” pre-Thanksgiving tale.  But an editor made a good call on its content: rock-snot-means-gift-to-tribes.

On-the-ground reporting might also have uncovered that—just beyond the federal Conte Lab where CRASC meets, sits two miles of beleaguered Connecticut River identified on colonial maps as Peskeomscut.  It’s a delicate place to fashion an ‘Indian-fish-rescue’ story from.  Here on May 19, 1676, Captain William Turner and Hadley-based soldiers surprise-attacked hundreds of sleeping Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks and Nipmucks–largely women, children, and elders. They’d come to rest, plant, and dry-harvest massive blooms of migrating shad, herring, and a knot of spawning shortnose sturgeon.  If time allowed, they’d tap a small, later-arriving salmon run.

Time did not.  This was King Phillips War, their fight for sovereign lands.  Dawn brought the Turners Falls massacre.  Just past Conte Lab’s windows warriors encamped at the ancient fishing-island today called Rock Dam counterattacked–routing and killing 37, including Captain Turner.

This day, 335 years later, it was noted that half the hatchery’s 8,000, two-to-four year old salmon, the small ones, could likely be released to already didymo-infected rivers.  Regulations would prevent any sale.  Still, all remaining baby salmon, plus 500,000 didymo-infected lake trout still faced a quick landfill burial before the hatchery could be flushed with chlorine.  They could not be released for anglers—and way back in 2004 the USFWS Region 5 actually issued a consumer advisory on eating hatchery salmon.  Those remaining 4,000 larger salmon, some to 9-1/2 lbs., might also have had to be killed and land-filled–had they not found someone to take them…

CRASC, charged with protecting all of the river’s migratory fish species, unanimously voted to donate those big fish—killed, gutted and iced, to any federally tribe who’d take them.  It might be a PR coup for the disastrous restoration, buffering perceptions away from the millions lost producing ten dozen salmon returns annually.  As with the Pilgrims, Pynchon and William Turner, the Indians had not come calling: USFWS had.  Region 5’s William Archambault noted, “We reached out to the federal tribes.” Ironically, that included the Wampanoag and Narragansett.

I hope all fully understood that in accepting fish they did USFWS a huge favor.  They should also know the embattled 2-mile reach of river they know as Peskeomscut remains today a desolate place.  There, USFWS and CRASC have abandoned spawning federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and beleaguered American shad to the excesses of a for-profit power company.  Certainly they know that Jessie Little Doe was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2010.  “We Still Live Here” premiered nationwide on November 17th, funded in part by WGBY in Springfield, MA.

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