Voters on Tuesday delivered a decisive rebuke to Central Maine Power and its $1 billion transmission project, by approving a referendum that aimed to halt its construction.
But Maine's largest utility remains defiant, vowing to challenge the constitutionality of the ballot question that CMP and its allies spent $63 million trying to defeat. Now, the focus shifts to imminent legal and regulatory challenges, which project opponents worry will buy CMP enough time to complete most of the construction.
All the votes from the most expensive referendum in Maine history were still not yet counted, but it was clear late Tuesday that Maine voters had overwhelmingly rejected a two-year effort to convince them that the corridor project should mean as much to them as it does to CMP.
Opponents of the corridor, including Tom Saviello, who helped lead the anti-corridor campaign, were jubilant, but also wary of the fight ahead.
"Most importantly, CMP get the message, stop what you're doing. You lost. Go home," Saviello said as he and other activists celebrated.
But just a few hours after Saviello and a majority of Maine voters delivered their message, CMP's construction crews were back at work Wednesday morning at multiple locations along the 145-mile corridor.
"In the area from the new part of the corridor that goes through the working forest from the Forks to the Quebec border. We have some of the 400 Maine crews also working on the DC line from the Forks down to Lewiston," said Thorn Dickinson, president of the New England Clean Energy Connect LLC, a spinoff company created by CMP to construct and operate the corridor.
He says the corridor work will continue until CMP has exhausted all of its legal and regulatory options.
"Obviously we're disappointed in the outcome but we don't see that as the end of the road," he said. "This is a project that we think is critical and important to Maine's future. We're going to continue to advocate it," he said.
CMP has framed Tuesday's election as a con job pushed by competing energy companies who stand to lose money if the project is built.
While it's true that companies like NextEra financed the corridor opposition to the tune of about $30 million, it's also true that the corridor is deeply unpopular and so is CMP.
When overlaying the utility's service area with referendum results by town, all but a handful of localities voted 'yes' on Question 1 – even though the corridor clear-cut is not visible to most of them.
Dickinson acknowledged CMP's public relations problem, but he says the company will challenge the constitutionality of the referendum, citing potential separation of powers issues and contract law.
But opponents point to Tuesday's vote as an important statement.
"I believe that the people of Maine are going to be quite incensed if they are just pushing ahead pretending that yesterday didn't happen," says Pete Didisheim, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Didisheim says CMP is making a big mistake pushing ahead with construction in the face of Tuesday's vote, as well as an ongoing dispute over a public lands lease needed to complete the corridor.
The lease dispute is now in the hands of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and Didisheim says the agency should move now to invalidate CMP's permits.
"Until or unless a court determines that there's some issue with this (referendum) language, this law is heading towards going into effect, and it outlaws the construction of a transmission line like the NECEC in the Upper Kennebec region," he said. "So as soon as this law goes into effect the line that they're working on will be illegal."
Corridor opponents like Sandi Howard believe CMP's goal is to race forward with construction in order to strengthen a court challenge asserting vested rights.
Such a claim essentially centers on the argument that CMP secured all the permits, started construction and therefore has a right to finish the project.
CMP says it's already spent nearly $400 million on construction.
"They've been buying up equipment and trying to clear-cut the corridor as fast as possible," she said Tuesday. "And it's likely for that vested rights argument."
On Wednesday afternoon, CMP's parent company filed its challenge against the referendum in Maine Superior Court asserting that very vested rights argument.
It also asserted that the ballot question violated the Maine Constitution's separation of powers and contracts clause provisions.
The challenge kicks off what is certain to be a high-profile legal fight.
But CMP critics like NRCM's Pete Didisheim say the utility is rolling the dice by not only challenging the legality of the referendum, but also the will of Maine voters.
"They are facing an electorate that has substantial distrust and hostility towards this utility and they are getting dangerously close to losing their social license to be considered a corporation that's operating in good faith in the state of Maine," he said.
Didisheim noted that on the same day voters tried to halt construction of the project, petition circulators were gathering signatures for another ballot initiative that aims to seize CMP's assets and create a so-called public utility.
Dickinson was asked if CMP's moves now could further drum up interest in a public utility.
He acknowledged that the company has had its problems, but insists that it's on the right track to fixing them.
"And I also believe in the long run that the facts are on our side on this, and that in the end, this will be a project that people will eventually realize how important it was for Maine and the region's future," he said.
Hydro-Quebec, the electricity supplier of the project, also seems to be making a similar gamble.
The Quebec-government owned utility spent more than $21 million advocating for the project, and on Wednesday it released a statement saying it plans to ensure the continued construction of the corridor.