Court backs $1B power line at center of CO2 battle

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, August 16, 2020

Maine’s Supreme Court ruled that a ballot initiative on revoking permits for a $1 billion power line in New England is unconstitutional, handing a victory to a contentious project at the center of the region’s climate goals.

The New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) line would deliver Canadian hydropower to Maine and Massachusetts. Governors of both states have said it is an important tool for their decarbonization plans.

Opponents of the line — who questioned whether the 145-mile conduit would actually decrease carbon dioxide emissions and protested its impacts to Maine’s landscapes — had organized the ballot initiative in an attempt to block the project. They said the project would move emissions from the United States to Canada, rather than curbing them (Energywire, Aug. 11).

But the court ruled that the permit question could not be put to a public vote on this November’s ballot, saying that it “exceeds the scope of the people’s legislative powers” by interfering with the activities of the state’s utility regulator.

The court left room for an appeal within five days, although backers of the project predicted that the ruling would seal Maine’s approval.

“This decision is definitive,” said Carol Gregory, vice president of communications at the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-based environmentalist group.

The project must still receive approval from the federal Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers. But the court’s decision would allow the project to move forward in Maine, said Lynn St-Laurent, spokeswoman for Hydro-Québec, the Canadian utility that would supply electricity for the line.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmentalist group and a leading opponent of the NECEC line, said it was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling. It also referred to the outcome of a poll of 850 Maine residents, commissioned by the group last year, in which 65% of respondents said they opposed the project.

“The vast majority of Maine people oppose [the NECEC line], and they deserve the opportunity to vote,” said NRCM’s director of advocacy, Pete Didisheim, adding that the group would “continue to pursue every avenue available to defeat this project because it’s a bad deal for Maine.”

Most of the line’s power would end up in Massachusetts, whose governor has signed off on a contract for it. But the NECEC has been a special magnet for controversy in Maine. Hydro-Québec and a political action committee backed by utility developer Central Maine Power Co. have collectively spent nearly $15 million this year on advertising to defeat the ballot initiative, while an oil- and gas-backed group that opposes the power line also announced a $5.8 million ad buy last month.

The ruling came as regulators in New York advanced a second, separate transmission line that would bring Hydro-Québec’s power directly into New York City.

That 330-mile, $2.2 billion project, known as the Champlain Hudson Power Express line, has been the subject of similar debates over its climate effects, though the governor and city’s mayor have publicly backed it.

Regulators on the state Public Service Commission granted a series of amendments to the path proposed for the line, which secured permits in 2013. Opponents had previously sought to have new hearings on the amended path, which would have delayed the process.