Law 360 (March 29, 2021, 4:21 PM EDT)
Opponents of a proposed $1 billion transmission line that would ship hydropower from Quebec to New England want to expand their challenge of federal approvals to include the presidential, cross-border permit issued in the final days of the Trump administration. The Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Maine chapter of the Sierra Club on Friday urged a Maine federal court to let them add the U.S. Department of Energy to their complaint challenging the Army Corps of Engineers' approval of the New England Clean Energy Connect project.
Like the Corps, the DOE failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the NECEC project, the environmental groups allege. The agency also issued the presidential permit for the projecton Jan. 14 without seeking sufficient public comment, the groups said. The groups' motion and proposed amended complaint came 11 days after they sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm urging her to rescind the permit or suspend it while conducting a more thorough environmental review.
At issue is the $1 billion NECEC project spearheaded by Avangrid utility subsidiary Central Maine Power. The project includes a segment that starts at the U.S.-Canada border that would be an entirely new transmission corridor in Maine, cutting through previously untouched forest land. If completed, the project would deliver 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England grid after routing through Lewiston, Maine. The project has been challenged on multiple fronts, on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
The AMC, NRCMC and Sierra Club Maine sued the Corps in October, claiming the agency unlawfully botched its approval process when it issued a finding of no significant environmental impacts, despite what the groups called a secretive approval process that avoided public comment. The DOE made similar errors in issuing its own finding of no significant environmental impacts, the groups said in their proposed amended complaint filed Friday. The agency failed to take a "hard look" at the project's direct and indirect impacts, as well as greenhouse gas emissions impacts and cumulative environmental impacts, the proposed amended complaint said. "In addition, DOE's [environmental assessment] relies on the Corps' EA which was itself significantly flawed," the groups said in their proposed amended complaint. What's more, the DOE released its EA on the same day it issued the cross-border permit, withoutputting it out for public comment, the groups said in their proposed amended complaint. That's incontrast to more-stringent environmental impact statements the agency prepared for other cross-border transmission projects into New England, the groups said. Sierra Club Maine has separately sued the DOE for the disclosure of information related to the project.
The agency is in the process of turning over that information, according to court records.A day after the DOE issued the presidential permit for the NECEC project, the First Circuit blockedconstruction on an undeveloped segment of the project. The appeals court is mulling the environmental groups' appeal of the lower court's refusal to grant a preliminary injunction, and oral arguments are scheduled for this Tuesday.The NRCM declined to comment on its latest district court filings on Monday, saying they speak for themselves.
A DOE representative couldn't be immediately reached for comment Monday. The groups are represented by Lia Comerford and Kevin Cassidy of Lewis & Clark Law School's Earthrise Law Center and Natural Resources Council of Maine staff attorney Susan Ely. The federal government is represented by Amanda M. Stoner and Kristofor Swanson of the Natural Resources Section and Benjamin Carlisle of the Environmental Defense Section of the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division.Central Maine and NECEC, which have intervened on behalf of the Corps, are represented by Matthew D. Manahan, Joshua D. Dunlap and Lisa A. Gilbreath of Pierce Atwood LLP. The case is Sierra Club et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al., case number 2:20-cv-00396 inthe U.S. District Court for the District of Maine.--Additional reporting by Clarke Mindock. Editing by Kelly Duncan.