CMP warns of expensive delays if Maine pulls corridor approvals

Bangor Daily News

A Tuesday hearing could determine whether Central Maine Power Co. can proceed with its $1 billion hydropower project or have to make changes, including rerouting part of it, that could significantly delay the project and add tens of millions of dollars to its cost.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection held a full-day hearing to consider whether it should suspend a permit it granted last year for Central Maine Power Co.’s $1 billion hydropower project. It comes after a Maine judge ruled in August that the state had no authority to issue CMP a lease for public land comprising about a mile of the corridor in rural Somerset County.

The hearing provided a forum for the project’s backers and foes exactly two weeks before a statewide vote on Question 1, which is aimed at killing the project known formally as the New England Clean Energy Connect. CMP outlined contingency plans if the project is stalled either by a vote or the contested lease, but they would be expensive and permission to run on easements on neighboring land may be difficult to gain.

The New England Clean Energy Connect Project, a planned 145-mile transmission line that will run from Beattie Township on the Canadian border to Lewiston, aims to deliver hydropower to the New England electric grid. It is a collaboration between Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec.

CMP representatives argued that the public land lease should be valid because the project does not substantially alter the use of public lands, the constitutional threshold that requires the Legislature to approve such leases. Opponents of the project who have pushed back on the lease have argued it should have been subject to legislative approval all along.

Backers said they are examining alternative strategies in case the lease is found illegal and the DEP permit for the project is canceled, including burying wire and developing alternate routes. CMP said it could cost an extra $67 million to delay the project until the legal case over the land lease is settled, which is expected to happen in June 2022.

Suspension of the project’s license for at least nine months would make it impossible for CMP to meet its December 2023 target date to complete the project, said Thorn Dickinson, CEO and president of NECEC Transmission LLC, the CMP affiliate running the hydropower project. If the permit for the entire project is revoked and it is decommissioned, some $240 million in negotiated benefits for Mainers, including broadband connections and low-income rate relief, would be at risk.

But anti-corridor intervenors urged the department to suspend the project permit for various reasons, including that the utility should not be allowed to construct the rest of the 145-mile corridor through western Maine from the Canadian border to Lewiston until legal disputes are settled.

Letting the project proceed except for the one-mile public area allows CMP “to create a sense of inevitability” that the project will be completed, said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a vocal opponent of the corridor. He said if the project needs to be decommissioned, current structures will need to be removed and some mitigation efforts put into place.

In pre-testimony to the DEP, Dickinson detailed how much of the project has been built to date and the company’s strategy should the project be halted. As of Oct. 4, some 108 miles of right of way have been cleared and 58 poles installed. Most clearing is to be completed by the end of the year.

Dickinson outlined two routes that could bypass the contested lease. One is west of Route 201 and the other would partially run through the Moosehead Conservation Easement Area and Cold Stream Conservation Area. Both would require new permitting, but CMP said they are feasible, with the possibility of running transmission lines underground in that area.

But at least one local land trust said its property west of Route 201 where one proposed option would run is protected. The Pierce Pond Watershed Trust wrote to the DEP saying it has a perpetual legal obligation to enforce its conservation easements, and has not been contacted by CMP about possibly using them.

The court case over the lease remains active and could eventually be appealed to the state’s high court. For now, the state has a range of options over the lease, including letting it stand, saying it needs legislative approval, revising it or terminating it.

If the lease is invalidated, the permit for the entire project could be at risk unless an alternative route is approved. The DEP could suspend the permit, meaning a temporary removal pending additional measures, or revoke it, requiring CMP to reapply and obtain a new one.

There is no requirement for when a decision must be issued, Deputy Commissioner David Madore said. Post-hearing briefs can be submitted until Nov. 2 and reply briefs by Nov. 16.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-10-19 15:23:22 -0400