State environmental regulator to hold hearing on legality of electricity corridor license on Monday
The controversial New England Clean Energy Connect power line could face an existential threat Monday, in a hearing that will help determine whether a pending law approved by voters on November 2 requires the Department of Environmental Protection to Maine to suspend or revoke the project’s license.
The hearing takes place in a confusing and rapidly changing context. Most notably, NECEC agreed last Friday to temporarily halt construction on the billion-dollar transmission corridor – but for reasons not specifically related to the DEP review.
DEP has for months come under increasing pressure from project opponents to halt construction as legal and regulatory challenges arise. That pressure intensified on November 2, after voters in Maine approved a voting question designed to block the hall by a margin of about 60 to 40 percent.
On November 3, NECEC Transmission and Central Maine Power’s parent company, Avangrid, filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County Superior Court. The action seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent the law from coming into force, which is now expected to occur around December 19.
On November 5, DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim informed NECEC Transmission and CMP that the referendum results represented a change in circumstances for the licensing of the project.
Loyzim wrote: “(Maine law states) the commissioner may revoke or suspend a license after making certain findings, including a finding that:” There has been a change in condition or circumstance that requires revocation or the suspension of a license. I have determined that the result of the referendum, if certified as it will become law, represents a further change of circumstance which may necessitate the suspension of the NECEC ordinance.
Loyzim is already reviewing the NECEC license. On October 19, she held a hearing following a Superior Court ruling that the state‘s Public Lands Office failed to follow proper procedures to determine whether a lease on a mile of public land “Substantially alter” those lands.
A month later, Loyzim has not announced a decision. Essentially, Monday’s hearing broadens the scope of the investigation into public lands.
But the technical details of the hearing were overshadowed by unexpected events on Friday. After officially certifying the election results as required by law, Governor Janet Mills wrote to NECEC, asking them to voluntarily stop construction out of deference to voters in Maine.
Mills has been very supportive of the project and sees it as a necessary part of Maine’s fight against climate change. But she is also running for re-election in 2022 and walking a political tightrope, trying to balance her support in the face of growing public resentment with the NECEC’s refusal to step down.
Hours after Mills’ letter was published, NECEC Transmission Chairman and CEO Thorn Dickinson agreed to stop construction pending the outcome of Avangrid’s lawsuit. He, however, reiterated the company’s position that the pending law is unconstitutional and noted that the move would put 400 Maine contractors out of work just before the holiday season.
It’s unclear when this lawsuit might take place, but a hearing on the injunction request is set for December 15. The status and information schedule for the injunction is one of the topics on Monday’s agenda during the DEP hearing. With the law set to come into effect on Dec. 19 – 30 days after Mills certified the election results – opponents expect the judge to rule soon after the hearing.
Opponents have been calling for a stop to construction for months and have stepped up pressure since the election, staging a rally last week outside the DEP headquarters in Augusta.
NECEC is designed to bring electricity from Canadian hydroelectric producer Hydro-Quebec to the New England power grid via a converter station in Lewiston. The project is built to help Massachusetts meet its clean energy goals and is funded by that state’s electric customers.
The 145-mile highway is on land owned or controlled by CMP, with the exception of a one-mile parcel through public lands in Maine near The Forks. The DEP commissioner is also considering suspending the project permit on the basis of an inappropriate lease issued to cross this one-mile stretch.
Two-thirds of the route follows existing CMP power line corridors, some of which are widened up to 75 feet to accommodate another set of poles. But the corridor cuts through a 53-mile stretch of active forest that has been at the center of the controversy. Workers cut down trees on this land this year, much to the dismay of opponents.
Earlier this month, voters approved a referendum that bans the construction of high-voltage power lines in the Upper Kennebec area and requires the Maine legislature to approve any similar statewide projects retroactively. to 2020. It also requires that the legislature, retroactively to 2014, approve any project of such projects that use public lands by a two-thirds majority.
The day after the election, Avangrid filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Question 1. The company also pledged to continue construction of the power line.
In its complaint, Avangrid said nearly $ 450 million had already been spent on the corridor, more than 80% of its right-of-way had been cleared and more than 120 structures had been erected.
Avangrid, CMP and NECEC Transmission are all US subsidiaries of Spanish energy company Iberdrola.
This story will be updated.
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