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March was busy month in NECEC fight

image credit: © Hydro-Québec

The battle over the fate of the New England Clean Energy Connect continued last month with a victory for its opponents in state court, an expansion of a federal court fight against it, and debate over three bills in the Maine Legislature that would prohibit the foreign company involved in the controversial transmission project from spending money to fight ballot referendums on it.

The NECEC is being developed by Avangrid subsidiary NECEC Transmission LLC. It would carry 1,200 megawatts of hydropower generated by Hydro-Québec from the Canadian border to southern Maine where it would be fed into the New England grid for Massachusetts consumers. (Hydro-Québec's Jean-Lesage generating station dam is pictured above.)

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The project has been controversial since it was first proposed, largely because building it requires cutting a new corridor through 53 miles of forest being logged for timber in western Maine. The rest of the roughly 145 miles of it would go through an existing transmission corridor.

Avangrid subsidiary Central Maine Power controlled all the land needed for the NECEC except for a one-mile section controlled by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. The bureau leased the section to CMP but opponents of the project, including past and present state lawmakers, last June filed a civil action against the bureau, its head, another state agency and CMP. In it, they said that the bureau failed to have the two leases on the section approved by two thirds of the Maine Legislature, which a 1993 amendment to the Maine constitution requires it to do for leases that would "reduce" or "substantially alter" the character of public reserve lands, according to a report by Fred Bever for Maine Public Radio.

NECEC Transmission President Thorn Dickinson said electrical transmission infrastructure has existed on the section for five decades, according to a story by David Sharp of the Associated Press, but on March 17, Justice Michaela Murphy ruled that the bureau must conduct a formal assessment of the NECEC’s impact on the section. If the assessment determines that the project would significantly alter the section, two thirds of the Maine legislature would have to approve the leases on it.

Nearly two weeks after Murphy’s ruling, attorneys for conservation groups and CMP squared off in federal appeals court over the adequacy of assessments of the NECEC’s environmental impact performed by the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Energy.

The hearing before the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on March 30 dealt with an appeal by the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club of a lower court’s decision to deny their motion for a preliminary injunction that would stop work on the NECEC. (Although their request for a preliminary injunction was denied, the three environmental groups got work halted on the part of the project that would require cutting a new corridor when the appeals court issued its own injunction in December while considering their appeal.)

The groups sought the preliminary injunction pending the outcome of a federal lawsuit they filed in October challenging the Army Corps’ method of determining the effect the NECEC would have on the environment. The groups maintain that the Corps should have gone through the more rigorous process necessary for it to issue an Environmental Impact Statement on the project rather than just conducting an Environmental Assessment on it They are seeking to have the Environmental Assessment dismissed and to have the Corps be ordered to go through the Environmental Impact Statement process.

The day prior to their appeals court hearing, the groups filed a motion seeking to add the Department of Energy to their lawsuit, saying that, under the Trump administration, it 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.

In the hearing, Central Maine Power said the Army Corps was correct in finding that the NECEC would have no significant impact on the environment, according to a report by the Associated Press. The report also said that the three judges who heard the case “at times expressed exasperation over complexities of the arguments relating to (t)he review process and separate environmental assessments by the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers,” giving the judges something in common with journalists covering the dispute over the project.

The bills being considered in the Maine Legislature deal with a less esoteric subject than federal environmental review processes — money in politics.

NECEC opponents tried and failed to get a referendum on the project on the ballot last November but have gathered enough signatures to advance the process of getting one on the ballot this November.

Not surprisingly, their efforts have been fought by groups affiliated with Hydro-Québec and CMP, as Ethan Andrews detailed in a story for The Free Press. In the last 15 months, the Hydro-Québec Maine Partnership ballot committee has spent $9.99 million opposing the referendums while CMP’s Clean Energy Matters PAC raised $14.87 million to promote the project, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Hydro-Québec’s spending, according to project opponents, takes advantage of a loophole in Maine law that allows foreign entities to spend money on campaigns involving referendums even though state and federal law prohibits them from spending money on campaigns involving candidates.

Three bills were introduced in the Maine Legislature to close the loophole. On March 26, the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs voted down one bill and tabled the other two to allow more time to analyzing them.

 

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