A federal appeals court issued an injunction halting the start of construction of a major electric transmission line in Maine the same day the project’s developer said it received its last permit needed to begin construction.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 15 issued an injunction that environmental groups sought over a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit originally granted in November 2020 to Avangrid Inc. subsidiary Central Maine Power Co. for the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project. The groups — the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club — contended the Corps had not fully assessed the environmental impacts of the transmission project, which is to run 145 miles from the U.S.-Canada border at Beattie Township, Maine, and snake down through the state’s western forests to an interconnection point in Lewiston, Maine.
The injunction came the same day Avangrid said it had received a presidential permit from the U.S. Energy Department that specifically allows for cross-border construction work. The line, known as the NECEC, is to deliver up to 1,200 MW of hydroelectric power from Hydro-Queìbec into the ISO New England grid. The roughly 100-kilometer Canadian portion of the high-voltage, direct-current project, called the Appalaches-Maine Interconnection, will be owned by Hydro-Quebec affiliate Hydro Quebec TransEìnergie Inc.
Avangrid said in a Jan. 15 news release that the presidential permit was the last major permit it needed to begin construction and that 53 miles of new corridor will be carved out within working forest land, while the rest of the project will follow existing lines.
The utility earlier that week had begun working on aspects of construction that did not require that final presidential permit, such as setting up temporary access roads for transmission line-carrying monopole installation, according to Avangrid Vice President of Corporate Communications Zsoka McDonald.
Opposition to transmission line comes from many sides
With the injunction, the environmental groups now must file an opening brief on the merits of their case within 10 days of the Jan. 15 order.
They are not the only source of opposition Avangrid has faced in its battle to develop the NECEC.
NextEra Energy Inc. has volleyed several objections at the Avangrid project in the past year. In March 2020, NextEra lost a state court challenge in which it asserted that the Maine Public Utilities Commission erred when it granted a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the project. Separately, NextEra filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October 2020 over lost opportunity costs and profits the company could incur to install a circuit breaker at its Seabrook nuclear facility in New Hampshire that is compatible with the new line.
Maine residents have mounted their own challenges to the transmission line. While an initial citizens ballot initiative was killed by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional before it was put to Maine voters, activists including former Republican state Senator and anti-NECEC activist Tom Saviello have since filed paperwork with the state for a second citizens’ initiative to be included on the 2021 ballot.
In an email Jan. 16, Saviello said the injunction came as “a pleasant surprise” that “could have a significant impact on building the line and keeping on schedule.” The day before, the former legislator separately noted his “grave concerns” with how the DOE issued the presidential permit.
Specifically, he said, the DOE never followed through with a 30-day public comment period on a draft presidential permit that had been promised to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a November 2019 letter.
“This is unheard of and totally unacceptable, and it further highlights the importance of the citizens’ initiative that I filed last fall,” Saviello said.
Hydro-Queìbec has faced resistance to the power export plan in its home country as well. In December 2020, the Innu Nation of Labrador asked the Canada Energy Regulator to halt the utility’s plan to export the hydroelectric power to the U.S. until historical grievances are addressed, claiming that the plan violates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — specifically, the Innu’s right to control resources within and refuse development of their historic territory.
by Bridget Reed Carson-Morawski