Developers Challenge Maine Ballot Initiative Result Blocking Transmission Project

Investors and stakeholders are challenging the results of a ballot initiative that could block a transmission project that would run through Maine to bring hydropower from Canada to New England.

New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) is a $950 million, 145-mile transmission project designed to bring 1,200 megawatts (MW) of hydropower from Quebec, Canada, into Maine and connect to the New England grid at Lewiston, Maine, and sell electricity to distribution companies in Massachusetts.

NECEC Transmission and Avangrid Networks on Nov. 3 filed a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court challenging Question 1, which appeared on Maine ballots on election day, Nov. 2. Voters approved the initiative, the Legislative Approval of Certain Electric Transmission Lines, which calls for a prohibition on “the construction of electric transmission lines defined as high-impact in the Upper Kennebec Region, including the NECEC,” and requires “a two-thirds vote of each state legislative chamber to approve high-impact electric transmission line projects.”

The project has secured permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, and the Maine Environmental Protection Department.

In 2018, several Massachusetts utilities signed contracts to purchase 9.45 million megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity per year from Hydro-Quebec per through the NECEC transmission project.

At the time, Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources said the contract would result in 47 percent of the electricity consumed by Massachusetts being generated from clean energy and would “significantly contribute” to meeting the state’s emission reduction goals under the Global Warming Solutions Act.

The ballot initiative, which was approved by roughly 60 percent of voters, calls for a change in Maine law that would block the project, NECEC Transmission and Avangrid said in a statement. The initiative is unconstitutional and violates both state and federal law, the plaintiffs said.

In their filing, Avangrid and NECEC Transmission argue that the ballot initiative violates the vested rights of the property owner, namely, the project company NECEC Transmission. The plaintiffs also argue that the initiative violates the separation of power clause of Maine’s Constitution by attempting to reverse executive and judicial branch decisions with legislative action.

And the plaintiffs argue that the initiative violates the contracts clause of both the Maine and United States constitutions by attempting to cancel a 25-year lease between NECEC Transmission and the State of Maine.

NECEC Transmission seeks a declaratory judgment from the Superior Court that the ballot initiative is unlawful and cannot be enforced. NECEC Transmission is also asking the court for an immediate injunction preventing retroactive enforcement of the initiative against the project, so that construction is not disrupted while this lawsuit proceeds.

Maine’s Supreme Court last year threw out a proposed ballot initiative that would have required the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reverse its May 2019 decision approving the NECEC project.

“Maine residents have voted decisively to terminate the CMP [Central Maine Power] corridor, which means the time has come for CMP to respect the will of Maine people by stopping this project immediately,” Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a statement. “If CMP fails to halt construction activities right away, then the Department of Environmental Protection should move quickly to suspend the permit and require that CMP begin restoring areas of Western Maine that already have been damaged.”

Didisheim also called on Massachusetts to honor the electoral outcome “by selecting an alternative option for meeting its climate goals without imposing significant environmental harm on another New England state.”

“I think the decision in Maine speaks to a much larger issue, the work that is being done and needs to be done to electrify those portions of our economy that are currently driven by fossil fuels and that is transmission capacity and the strength and power of the transmission grid,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said during a press conference. “Whether you are talking about wind or you’re talking about hydro or you’re talking about basically any other form of renewable energy, transmission has to be a big part of the discussion because we are talking about literally in some cases, a doubling or tripling of the amount of energy, electricity that is going to be available to do it.”

“We are obviously looking at the results [of the ballot initiative] and talking to Avangrid, and they and we will figure out what the next move is,” Baker said, adding in response to a reporter’s question about the status of the project, “No. I don’t see it as dead.”