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Canadian link to NECEC gets big approval, but both projects still being fought

image credit: © Hydro-Québec
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  • May 5, 2021

The transmission line that would supply Canadian hydropower to the New England Clean Energy Connect has received a major government approval in Canada but it and the NECEC still face a wide range of opposition in both Canada and the United States.

Construction of the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection Line was approved about three weeks ago by the government of Québec, according to a press release from Hydro-Québec, which will build the line and provide the electricity that will flow through it.

The 64-mile-long power line still must be approved by the Commission of the Canada Energy Regulator because it would be part of a transborder project. Hydro-Québec said the CER’s procedural timetable indicates that the agency is expected to rule on the power line this spring and that, if the CER were to approve it, work on it could begin thereafter and be completed in 2023.

Together, the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection and the NECEC, which would be built, owned and run by subsidiaries of Avangrid, would bring nearly 10 terawatt hours of Québec-generated hydropower to New England annually for 20 years. The vast majority of that, 9.45 TWh, would go to Massachusetts, with 0.5 TWh staying in Maine due to an agreement signed last summer to help quell opposition to the NECEC there.

The agreement may have swayed some of the NECEC’s opponents, as one of their complaints was that Maine wasn’t benefitting enough from the NECEC, which, even though it would go 147 miles through the Granite State, was conceived as a response to a clean power solicitation from Massachusetts.

Still, the NECEC and the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection retain foes on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border and those foes are quite a mixed bag, including, as they do, indigenous people in both countries; environmentalists, even though other environmentalists support the projects; and the owners of New England power plants that could be hurt financially if the projects were to go through.

Fights over infrastructure projects between groups that normally work together draw a lot of attention, but they are not uncommon. For example, pipeline projects often pit labor unions against environmentalists, although both also share common causes and generally support the Democratic Party.

With the Biden Administration seeking to pass a massive infrastructure bill, however, opportunities for these sorts of battles abound, and plenty are occurring. In a story for the Associated Press, Patrick Whittle, with help from David Sharp, highlighted some projects on which environmental groups disagree, including the NECEC and the Champlain Hudson Power Express, which would bring Canadian wind power and hydropower to New York City.

The latter project is opposed by Margaret Sheehan, coordinator of North American Megadam Resistance Alliance, who says it would involve digging in “iconic Lake Champlain” and could disrupt endangered sturgeon habitat in the Hudson River. At the same time, it's supported by Bill Wellman, the hydro chair of the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited, who says its potential impacts just show there’s “no such thing as a free lunch, particularly when it comes to power or the environment.”

The NECEC, meanwhile, is praised by the Conservation Law Foundation, which says it would reduce New England’s fossil fuel reliance, but opposed by Environment Maine, which prefers offshore wind as a way for decarbonizing the New England grid.

Environmentalists who oppose the NECEC often cite the fact that it would necessitate cutting a new corridor for transmission lines through 53 miles of forest in western Maine. That also is cited as a reason that a coalition of First Nations from Québec, Labrador and Maine oppose it and the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection in a story by Kevin Dougherty for iPolitics, a website owned by The Toronto Star’s corporate parent. But the main reason the First Nations oppose the projects is their claim that 36 percent of Hydro-Québec’s energy is stolen from them because it’s produced on their land.

The Penobscot Nation of Maine, Innu Nation in Labrador and five First Nations in Québec said in a March 30 press release that they had written letters to President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau asking them to halt the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection and the NECEC.

"The U.S Army Corps of Engineers ignored its responsibility — and our requests — to consult with us and gave the NECEC its stamp of approval with blinders on," Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said in the letter to President Biden. Francis said construction of the NECEC would involve extensive clearing, which would expose many streams to the sun's heat, thereby threatening the sustainability of brook trout and several other species.

The Army Corps’ method of determining the effect the NECEC would have on the environment was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed in October by the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club. A hearing in the case was held in Boston the same day the First Nations announced they had written Biden and Trudeau, as I detailed in my April 6 post about the NECEC.

The day prior to the hearing, the environmental groups filed a motion seeking to add the Department of Energy to their lawsuit because, they said, the Department of Energy, under the Trump administration, rushed to issue a Presidential Permit for the NECEC before President Biden took office without first allowing for public comment. Presidential Permits are required for projects that transport energy across the nation’s borders and, in their letter, the First Nations urged the DOE to set aside the one issued for the NECEC, conduct a comprehensive environmental impact study for the project and seriously consider their ethical concerns about it.

At the hearings for the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection held by Québec’s office for public hearings on the environment, representatives of the Innu First Nation of Pessamit and the Wemotaci Atikamekw argued that the power Hydro-Québec would export through the line was “acquired unconstitutionally, without accommodation and compensation, from hydroelectric dams erected on their territory between 1911 and 2004.”

The office, which is the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement and goes by the acronym BAPE, concluded that the interconnection’s route was acceptable from the standpoint of the biophysical and human environment and that the power transmitted through it would help decarbonize the economies of Maine and Massachusetts.

As for the First Nation’s claim about the power that the interconnection would carry, BAPE said “it was not in its mandate to investigate the legitimacy of Québec’s hydroelectric production and to take a position on this subject.”

In an exchange of documents with Hydro-Québec, however, the Commission of the Canada Energy Regulator, said it has final say whether construction of the interconnection can proceed and that, unlike BAPE, it does have the mandate “to satisfy all obligations for consultation and accommodation of Aboriginal peoples.”

Hydro-Québec maintains that it has negotiated more than 40 agreements with the First Nations and that its power dams received all necessary authorizations, “in compliance with the legal framework applicable at the time.”

The NECEC’s opponents include companies with power plants in New England that could be financially hurt by it. The largest is NextEra Energy, which owns the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and an oil-fired power plant called Wyman Station and a battery array on Cousins Island in Yarmouth, Maine.

NextEra has supported two efforts to get referendums on the NECEC on ballots in Maine. One was unsuccessful and the other is on track for this fall’s election. Additionally, the company has an ace in the hole in its fight against the project, which Bruce Mohl detailed in a story for Commonwealth, a magazine published by a nonprofit think tank called the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth.

A circuit breaker at Seabrook needs to be upgraded to accommodate the power that the Appalaches–Maine Interconnection and NECEC would bring into the New England grid. In filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Avangrid accuses NextEra of stalling on the upgrade to undermine the NECEC, while NextEra maintains that the upgrade is more costly and complex than Avangrid will admit.

Avangrid had wanted the upgrade to be completed by this fall, but that’s now impossible due to the prep time it requires. The next best time to do the upgrade is the next time NextEra shuts Seabrook for regular maintenance. That, however, won’t be until the spring of 2023, which is roughly the same time that the NECEC is supposed to come online. Additionally, Avangrid says that in order to do the work then, NextEra has to start planning for it now, which the company shows no signs of doing.




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