Spotlight on FirstLight

On March 4, 2020 CRC highlighted the decades-long issues with fish passage at Turners Falls Dam, owned by FirstLight, as well as the ways FirstLight has attempted to take advantage of regulatory loopholes, financial maneuvers and opaque shell companies. You can read that opinion on CRC’s website or in the Greenfield Recorder newspaper.

On March 15, FirstLight fired back, claiming we made “false assertions” and presented “a misleading perspective.” You can read their opinion in the Greenfield Recorder.

Here are the facts, published in the Greenfield Recorder on April 28, 2020.

The Connecticut River Conservancy has worked for 68 years to promote scientifically sound, responsible solutions that restore and protect New England’s great river. We use thoughtful advocacy based on sound facts, practical ideas, and hard work. Since 2013 we have engaged in every facet of one of the most complicated hydropower relicensing in New England. FirstLight’s two facilities in MA are part of a broader proceeding that includes three other hydropower projects in VT and NH, together impacting nearly half of the 410-mile Connecticut River. This proceeding has included 72 studies and thousands of pages of data. We’ve hired technical experts to help evaluate results and provide creative solutions. We have filed hundreds of pages of technical comments and engaged over a thousand members of the public in this process. We’re working in good faith with informed and accurate positions to create a fair deal for the river, the public, and the hydropower companies.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same of FirstLight. Let’s explore their March 15 ‘My Turn’ opinion that misrepresented our concerns.

We are not alleging FirstLight broke any laws or lied about their revenue. We are saying they refuse to discuss revenue trends over time. Their 2016 license application only lists outdated revenue data from 2013. In 2018 we asked how their revenue has changed since 2013. They refused repeatedly. So we hired an expert to assemble and analyze publicly available energy pricing information. Among what we learned was that in 2018-19 alone they earned approximately $70 million more than their reported 2013 revenue.

After years stating that Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage (their cash cow) and Turners Falls hydropower dam (the poor cousin) were one company and one project for relicensing purposes, they brought out their lawyers. The lawyers split the one company into multiple layers of limited liability corporations (LLCs) that separates the cash cow from its poor cousin, then created two separate relicensing applications, and designated the LLCs as “exempt wholesale generators.” This exempts FirstLight from maintaining and making available to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) certain financial records. We’re not sure which records and to what effect, but it gives us pause.

About that visit to Northfield Mountain by disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and FERC Chair Neal Chatterjee: FirstLight claims they just answered the phone when a federal agency called for a visit. Ok, fair enough. But they should know FERC can’t have private meetings with a pending licensee. We wanted to know what happened at that private meeting. After having to sue FERC to get relevant documents, we learned that FirstLight proposed a detailed agenda to discuss the relicensing, energy policy, and regulations, including their pending request to increase Northfield Mountain capacity. Correctly, FERC rejected this agenda noting that it described prohibited conversations.

These documents also revealed FirstLight invited DC-based lobbyist Mike McKenna to attend. McKenna was briefly head of President Trump’s energy transition team. While FERC staff and commissioners have restrictions on ex-parte communications, lobbyists are permitted to meet with commissioners or staff for general discussions about issues that may impact their clients. For example, FERC overturned a New York pipeline decision after McKenna was hired by the pipeline company to lobby on their behalf. Seeing a lobbyist on the invite list is a big red flag because Trump appointees have a track record of overturning decisions by career professionals.

For two years we were in frequent meetings and discussions with Firstlight and had agreed to negotiate in good faith. However, we were not told about any of these significant changes before they happened. We had to search through the most obscure corners of FERC to learn that FirstLight was proposing these corporate and financial maneuvers. And the public was not notified of the EPA and FERC visit to Northfield Mountain.

The public and the Connecticut River deserves better. FirstLight’s line staff is first rate and we appreciate our collaborations. We just aren’t so sure about its corporate leadership. Good faith means not trying to take advantage of regulatory loopholes, financial maneuvers and opaque shell companies. We are watching to make sure FirstLight doesn’t try to end-run career scientists by lobbying Trump’s political appointees in Washington, DC.  And we know FirstLight has the money to do what needs to be done to improve our river. We’re working hard to make sure that happens.

Andrew Fisk, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy.