$1B transmission line sparks lawsuits, FERC complaints

Source: By David Iaconangelo and Niina H. Farah, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, October 29, 2020

A $1 billion power line seen as central to New England’s energy future is embroiled in a new lawsuit over its environmental impacts, weeks after its developer accused a rival company of unfair practices.

The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club sued the Army Corps of Engineers over the project Tuesday, alleging the agency violated federal law when issuing a key environmental approval.

If completed, the 145-mile New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line would bring Quebec hydropower into Maine and Massachusetts, where officials say it will help catapult their states toward their goals of 100% carbon neutral power. When operating at full capacity, it would supply the region with the equivalent of 17% of Massachusetts’ power demand, according to state energy authorities.

An array of groups have fought bitterly to halt the project, arguing that it would harm local wildlife, stifle tourism and support a Canadian hydropower industry that is deeply resented by First Nations peoples there. One of the groups’ central efforts — a ballot initiative asking Mainers whether they wanted to revoke the project’s regulatory permits — was struck down this summer by a court that said the question could not be included on the November ballot (Energywire, Aug. 14).

But opposition continued this week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, where the conservationist challengers claimed the Army Corps’ environmental assessment had failed to substantiate the power line’s claimed greenhouse gas reduction benefits. They also argued the agency neglected to consider baseline environmental conditions at the project site and how they might be affected by the development, which is backed by utility Central Maine Power Co.

Those oversights were violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, said the groups. They urged a federal judge to toss out the Army Corps’ environmental assessment and require the agency to instead draft a more thorough environmental impact statement.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has abdicated its responsibility to assess the significant, harmful and long-lasting impact” of the project, said Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The agency also did not release either a draft or final analysis for public comment, in violation of administrative law, said the three groups, writing that they had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to see the document.

The Army Corps’ decision not to conduct a full EIS was “a slap in the face to all Mainers,” said Bennett.

Several First Nation groups in Canada, including the Innu Nation, have objected to hydropower transmission lines that would serve U.S. states, charging they would contaminate waters, lead to construction of new dams and do nothing to redress the destruction of ancestral sites. In Maine, the Penobscot Nation also demanded a full EIS in a letter to the Army Corps this summer.

The Army Corps did not respond to a request for comment.

Utility rivalry goes to FERC

The lawsuit came just weeks after Avangrid Inc., which owns Central Maine Power, accused a separate utility, Florida-Based NextEra Energy Inc., of “unlawfully interfering” with the energy corridor’s progress.

NextEra, which operates two fossil fuel plants in Maine and a nuclear station in New Hampshire, has tried to stop the hydropower transmission line in the past. It lost a court challenge in September that would have struck down the project’s contract to supply power to Massachusetts.

In a complaint filed with regulators at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this month, Avangrid charged that NextEra had also funded three “shadow” groups that campaigned against the line.

It also said that NextEra had deliberately held up transmission upgrades that would allow the line to connect to the grid when it’s completed in 2023, in violation of FERC rules.

FERC should force NextEra to “immediately commence” design and planning work in preparation for the upgrades, lawyers for Avangrid said, and open a fact-finding probe “to determine the gravity of NextEra’s misconduct.”

“NextEra’s continuing efforts to oppose, delay, and derail the [New England Clean Energy Connect] Project derive directly from its financial interests in its existing fossil and nuclear generation fleet in Maine and New Hampshire” and its plans to build out renewables in Maine, they wrote.

NextEra did not respond to a request for comment.