Hydro-Quebec will make a last ditch effort to try to save a controversial transmission line project in Maine’s highest court on Tuesday.
Maine residents canceled the project after 59 percent voted to ban construction of the 233-kilometer hydroelectric corridor in a referendum last November. The project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission LLC (NECEC), has been on hold since the historic vote, at the request of the Governor of Maine.
Now, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments from various parties on the constitutionality of the referendum itself, in addition to a challenge to a lease on public land. Either could jeopardize the project.
This could be the last chance for developers to secure approval for the project, which would see Quebec supply Massachusetts with renewable energy for 20 years and is expected to generate US$10 billion for Hydro-Quebec during that time.
Lynn St-Laurent, spokesperson for Hydro-Quebec, said the Quebec state corporation and the parent company of its U.S. partner, Central Maine Power (CMP), will argue that the referendum unfairly revokes permits granted by executive and judicial powers, which has already led to hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditure.
“[The referendum] is retroactively seeking to revoke those authorizations and stop those projects, so we’re going to argue that it’s unconstitutional,” St-Laurent said. “Each permit was obtained after a rigorous process.
She said CMP owner Avangrid spent some US$450 million last year to clean up 86% of the corridor in Maine and install 120 structures, as CMP began construction “in good faith to these permits.
Orlando Delogu, professor emeritus of law at the University of Maine School of Law, said canceling a project initiated several years earlier, especially once construction has begun, violates the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws.
He said the initiative cannot stand for several reasons, one being that its wording would change the state’s constitution for consideration of similar future projects, which effectively changes the constitution – doing “what is expressly prohibited”.
Over a thousand pages of briefs have been filed in court by experts and various parties.
‘Mouse deal’ for Mainers, says opponent
Meanwhile, energy companies, environmental activists and other critics are asking the court to uphold the referendum’s validity, with some saying the CMP went ahead with its work knowing the risks of a challenge.
“Permits have been appealed,” said Tom Saviello, a well-known opponent of the project and former Republican senator from Maine. “If you advance, you advance at your own risk.”
He said the project is “a bad deal” for Mainers because the state is expected to see a total of US$258 million in economic benefits, while Hydro-Quebec and CMP would see billions.
Opponents have also long viewed the project as offering too little benefit given the damage done to forests in their state’s north – “a precious place for Mainers,” Saviello said.
The planned project would carry 1,200 megawatts of electricity over a 336-kilometre high-voltage transmission line between Thetford Mines, Quebec, and Lewiston, Maine. Of the planned 233 kilometers on the American side, 85 kilometers would pass through a wooded area. The clearing work was already well advanced at the time of the referendum.
According to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 3.6 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 700,000 cars off the road.
However, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group, the Maine Natural Resource Council, has expressed considerable skepticism about the real environmental benefits of Hydro-Quebec power, questioning whether the project would actually reduce GHG emissions.
WATCH | Drone footage showing the forest clearing in Maine along the project line:
The result of the referendum is the last legal obstacle to put the project in danger. In August, a state the judge ruled that the project had no power to cross a 1.6 kilometer stretch of public land in West Forks, Somerset County.
The judge ruled that a lease, issued by the Maine Bureau of Public Lands to CMP in 2014, was invalid due to a clause in the constitution of the state which says that public lands cannot be substantially altered without a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature.
The Supreme Court will also consider that case on Tuesday.
Although it receives less attention, this dispute alone could derail the entire project. Bypassing the terrain would require new approvals and, therefore, additional time and cost. In the meantime, the NECEC must be commissioned no later than August 2024, according to the contract with Massachusetts.
For Hydro-Quebec, this challenge is only a way for opponents to thwart its plans. “All permits have been challenged by naysayers for the past three years,” spokesman St-Laurent said.
“The strategy of opponents, whether gas companies or gas company-funded groups, has been to try to mire the project in a sea of legal challenges.”
In its 2021 annual report, Hydro-Quebec revealed that it could lose $536 million if the project is abandoned, not including the potential loss of revenue of $10 billion over 20 years.
This sum does not include the $20 million spent in recent years on lobbying and publicity for the project nor the loss of $46 million in 2019 following the failure of its first project to export electricity to the United States. United States via New Hampshire, which had the same objectives.
“Should [this project] will fail, we will cross that bridge when we get there,” St-Laurent said, adding that the utility company is confident in its case.
The court is expected to render its decision this summer.