Maine’s top court ruled this week that construction of a 145-mile transmission-line corridor through western Maine can continue while the appeal of a judge’s decision to nullify a crucial lease needed for the project makes its way through the courts.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling would allow construction to resume on all but the one-mile stretch of state-owned land covered by the lease.
Supporters of the New England Clean Energy Connect project framed the law court ruling as “a direct blow to opponents of the project and their efforts to halt construction entirely.” NECEC said the rule also ensures the lease for the one-mile stretch remains in effect until the court hears NECEC’s appeal of the Superior Court ruling that vacated it.
“The route of the NECEC was carefully mapped out and minimizes the impact on the environment,” NECEC Transmission LLC President and CEO Thorn Dickinson said in a written statement. “Opponents continue to spread falsehoods and disinformation about the project, claiming it isn’t properly permitted. But when it comes to clean energy solutions for Maine, they have nothing to offer.”
But Tom Saviello, a former state senator who led efforts to put a statewide referendum question aimed at stopping the project onto the November ballot, said he was not surprised by the high court ruling. Although construction can resume on the $950 million project, he said he is confident NECEC will lose the appeal.
“They can continue to cut, but they’re building at their own risk,” Saviello said in an interview Friday. “They’re going to be building a power line to nowhere.”
The NECEC project seeks to build a transmission line from the Maine-Quebec border to Lewiston, where it will connect to the New England electric grid so Massachusetts can buy renewable power from Hydro-Quebec. Backers claim the project will generate 1,600 jobs, boost the Maine economy and help meet regional climate goals by displacing fossil fuel-based electricity generation with hydropower.
Critics contend that the 53 miles of new corridor cut through the woods will ruin wildlife habitat, spoil fragile wetlands and streams, and spoil the scenery of the western Maine mountains, all to benefit Massachusetts energy consumers.
At issue is a lease granted by the state for a one-mile, 33-acre tract of land in the West Forks and Johnson Mountain area. Central Maine Power signed the lease with the state in 2014 to allow the transmission line corridor to cross publicly owned lands.
But last month, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy vacated that lease saying the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands had failed to follow proper procedures for determining whether the lease would reduce or “substantially alter” use of those lands. The Maine Constitution requires the bureau to seek legislative approval – via a two-thirds vote – for the lease if the project would substantially alter the lands.
The ruling comes a month before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is expected to have a public hearing concerning whether the Superior Court ruling requires it to revoke the license it granted for the corridor. A public notice of the Oct. 19 hearing states that the DEP commissioner may suspend a license if there has been a change in condition or circumstance.
The original lease granted to CMP was signed in 2014 under Gov. Paul LePage and cost CMP $1,400 a year. A new lease was signed last year by Gov. Janet Mills, who increased the rent to $65,000 a year and allowed CMP to transfer the lease to NECEC.
Both CMP and NECEC are owned by Avangrid, the U.S. subsidiary of Iberdrola Group, a multinational energy company based in Spain.
Construction began this year and NECEC has said it expects the corridor to be complete by mid-2023. It’s unclear how legal wrangling might affect that timetable.
The corridor project has been controversial, and a referendum question on the ballot in November will ask voters if they want to have all leases of public lands subject to a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for approval. The measure would be retroactive to 2014, meaning the Legislature would have to review and vote on any public land leases for the NECEC corridor project, which has received approval from regulatory bodies, but has spawned opposition among many in the state, including some legislators.