Maine suspends license on hydro transmission project eyed by Mass.

Official also casts doubt on alternative routes

Maine’s top environmental protection official suspended the license for the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project Tuesday evening, putting the project that’s a critical part of the Baker administration’s energy and climate policy on ice unless and until a court rules in its favor.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim wrote in her decision that “at this point there is not a reasonable likelihood of the Project being able to deliver power” in light of Maine voters essentially rejecting the project on the Nov. 2 ballot.

“I find the approval of the Referendum by the voters of Maine is a change in situation and circumstance that requires suspension of the License,” Loyzim wrote in the order. “To not suspend the license would allow: continued construction in the region where such construction will shortly be banned; continued construction of other Project segments without a reasonable expectation that those segments will ever be part of an alternative route and energized to fulfill the original purpose of the Project; and construction of a type of project that shortly will not be authorized for lack of having received 2/3 approval of both houses of the Legislature.”

The suspension is the latest in a handful of significant blows to Gov. Charlie Baker’s energy and climate agenda. The NECEC project was supposed to bring renewable hydroelectric power generated in Quebec through Maine and into the regional power grid to fulfill part of a 2016 Massachusetts clean energy law.

Baker’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs did not comment Wednesday on the suspension of the NECEC license. Instead, a spokesman sent the News Service the same one-sentence comment he provided on Nov. 3 saying that the Baker administration is still reviewing the outcome of the Nov. 2 vote. Maine Gov. Janet Mills certified the results of that vote last week.

Officials here have said the project could supply about 17 percent of the state’s electricity demand and could reduce Massachusetts electric bills rates between 2 and 4 percent each year under contracts already approved by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. It was also seen as key to meeting the state’s carbon emissions reduction requirements for 2030.

Baker said earlier this month that he does not think the project is dead and pressure on him to back away from NECEC has been mounting ever since the Nov. 2 vote.

With about 60 percent support, Mainers adopted a policy that, even retroactively, will “ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region” among other provisions. Though other parts of the referendum could also imperil the project, the commissioner pointed out in her order that the Upper Kennebec Region portion is the only outright ban it contained.

During a Maine DEP hearing Monday, an attorney for Central Maine Power Company argued that the license should not be suspended because project backers could seek to reroute the NECEC corridor to avoid the Upper Kennebec Region, though the company and commissioner agreed that the exact boundaries of that region are unclear. Either way, Loyzim did not buy the argument and threw cold water on CMP’s idea of rerouting the project.

“I find there are no readily identifiable and potentially viable alternative routes that wouldallow completion of the Project and delivery of renewable hydropower from Canada to the New England grid given the statutory changes in the approved Referendum,” she wrote.

CMP had agreed last week to stop construction on the NECEC corridor until Maine’s business court rules on its motion for a preliminary injunction and Loyzim’s order makes that stop-work order official until the courts either grant the preliminary injunction or rule in CMP/NECEC’s favor in the legal challenges they have launched against the referendum.

Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for Dec. 15 and NECEC CEO Thorn Dickinson said this week that he believes the court’s intention is to decide on the motion before the end of 2021.

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