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Bills target proposed power line from Quebec; Project could hurt upstate companies

Upstate lawmakers are trying to hammer out a deal to slow or possibly kill a proposed transmission line from Quebec to New York City that power producers, especially in Western New York, say could put some of them out of business.

The Champlain Hudson Power Express, a $2 billion project led by a Manhattan-based investment firm, would be severely restricted under two bills from using eminent domain powers to obtain property for its project. The line as proposed would run under Lake Champlain and much of the Hudson River to New York City.

"We have power plants in upstate that are deciding whether they're going to stay open or close while somebody is talking about bringing power from outside the state. We'd much rather have New York State power," said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat who heads the Assembly Energy Committee.

His Senate Energy Committee counterpart, Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican, today will begin publicly pushing a new eminent domain power restriction bill targeting the Champlain-Hudson River project.

The Cuomo administration is facing a potentially thorny decision in the coming months: Can it support both the Quebec-originated power project and upstate-based power companies that both want to supply energy to the New York City market, where electricity consumption is expected to continue to grow?

Upstate suppliers say they cannot compete with the Champlain-Hudson River project because of choke points in the aging infrastructure. Backers of the project to bring power from Quebec says there will be enough demand in the coming years in the New York City metropolitan marketplace for power from Western New York and Quebec.

The dispute has major players on both sides with ties to the Legislature and Cuomo. Former Gov. George E. Pataki has advised the project's developers and board members at Blackstone, the major financier of the project. One of the board members is former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Critics include upstate power companies and unions, led by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which say upstate jobs will be lost. The issue has split some environmental groups.

"The need for this bill is to basically encourage in-state generation as opposed to importing power from a foreign country, which is going to cost New Yorkers jobs," said Maziarz of his new legislation.

The Niagara County lawmaker said the Champlain-Hudson River line, expected to carry up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity, is "the foot in the door" for efforts by Hydro Quebec and its supporters. He said the project "will come in, I think, and low ball their prices, get the market, get a corner on the market and then grow the market in New York State -- and, in the end, it costs New Yorkers their jobs."

Maziarz and Cahill, who both said they are optimistic that differences in their two bills can be ironed out, were not shy about the future of the eastern New York project without the power to obtain land through eminent domain.

"I think eminent domain is necessary for this project to go forward. So this legislation will severely, I think, make it more difficult for them to go forward," Maziarz said.

The head of the power transmission project did not return telephone calls to comment. But Donald Jessome earlier this spring told The Buffalo News that the two cables planned to be stretched over 400 miles from Canada to New York City will be enough to power 1 million homes and that the project comes without government funding.

Besides lower energy bills for downstate consumers, he said, there is "lots of room" for other suppliers upstate to send energy to the New York City area.

The deal needs approval from Cuomo's Public Service Commission.

Cahill's bill in the Assembly would require power importers to let New York-based companies to tap into their system to deliver energy and to permit eminent domain only if New York environmental standards are met in the production of the energy. Cahill said it is unsure the kind of power the Champlain-Hudson River project envisions as a backup to plans to import wind and hydropower.

"There is a great deal of harm to losing hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs in the power and related industries while we import power from outside the state," Cahill said.