BOSTON — The project that has been eyed by the Baker administration and Massachusetts utilities to import large-scale hydroelectric power as a critical part of meeting the state’s stable power needs and carbon emissions reductions goals was dealt a serious blow by Maine voters Tuesday and could soon become bogged down in legal proceedings.
Maine’s Question 1, which asked whether Mainers “want to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and to require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine” including retroactively, cruised to victory Tuesday night with nearly 60 percent support, according to unofficial results.
That outcome could imperil the New England Clean Energy Connect project, a 145-mile transmission project that Central Maine Power Company and its parent Avangrid has begun to link hydroelectric power generated in Quebec to the regional grid to fulfill part of a 2016 Massachusetts clean energy law.
While the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs did not provide meaningful comment in response to News Service requests Wednesday, corridor backers telegraphed plans to launch a legal challenge of the question.
“We believe this referendum, funded by fossil fuel interests, is unconstitutional. With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue,” Jon Breed, executive director of the Avangrid-backed Clean Energy Matters, said in a statement.
Avangrid, CMP and other supporters could also argue that they began work on the project in good faith, having been in compliance with the law as written when the necessary approvals and permits were secured.
Through September, Avangrid had spent a little over $400 million on the NECEC project, officials said during an earnings call late last month. CEO Dennis Arriola said on Oct. 27 that the construction of the transmission corridor was “well underway” and progressing nicely.
“Over 75 percent of the corridor has been cleared, with the majority of the transmission lines going through existing rights of way and around 100 poles have been installed so far,” he said, according to a transcript of the investor call. “These construction activities have supported approximately 650 jobs to date, while Maine towns are already benefiting from tax payments tied to NECEC.”
The Bangor Daily News reported that work continued on one of the most controversial stretches of the corridor Wednesday morning, further angering opponents.
The paper reported that the policy endorsed by Tuesday’s referendum will go into effect 30 days after Maine Gov. Janet Mills officially announces the result of the ballot question.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group that opposed the Central Maine Power corridor project, praised the results Tuesday night. The organization called for construction of the corridor to be halted immediately and for Massachusetts to heed the message delivered by Maine voters.
“Maine residents have voted decisively to terminate the CMP corridor, which means the time has come for CMP to respect the will of Maine people by stopping this project immediately. 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,” Pete Didisheim, the group’s advocacy director, said.
He added, “We also call on Massachusetts to honor this electoral outcome by selecting an alternative option for meeting its climate goals without imposing significant environmental harm on another New England state.”
Massachusetts has already abandoned one transmission project that ran into regulatory issues, but the Baker administration did not respond Wednesday to questions from the News Service asking if that was under consideration given the newest hurdle facing the NECEC project. Instead, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said the administration was “reviewing the outcome of the ballot initiative in Maine.”
On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said passage of the ballot question would set “a really difficult precedent” by retroactively denying appeals granted years ago.
“Truly electrifying big pieces of what is currently a fossil fuel-based economy isn’t going to work if people aren’t willing to accept transmission capacity to make that happen. You can’t get from here to there without transmission capacity,” Baker said. “And I think that’s the reason why [former Maine Gov.] Paul LePage and [Maine Gov.] Janet Mills -- two people who don’t agree on very much -- absolutely agree that this project should move forward.”
A Second Northern Impasse
NECEC became the plan to get hydroelectric power from its generation in Quebec into the regional power grid to meet Massachusetts’ wants and needs in March 2018, when the Baker administration and utility executives agreed to abandon their first choice, the Northern Pass project through the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
A New Hampshire regulatory board denied a certification needed for the controversial 192-mile electricity transmission project backed by Eversource Energy and the Canadian utility Hydro Quebec.
A Baker administration official said at the time that the switch to the NECEC project “continues the Baker-Polito Administration’s commitment to execute clean energy procurements that ensure the Commonwealth is positioned to achieve a clean, affordable, and resilient energy future while progressing towards greenhouse gas reduction requirements.”
The same day that the change was made official, the Natural Resources Council of Maine said Massachusetts made a “wise choice” to reject Northern Pass but selected “a nearly identical proposal” in NECEC.
Foreshadowing arguments the organization would make this year as it fought to imperil the project at the ballot box, a Natural Resources Council official said in March 2018 that “just like Northern Pass, CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) power line across Maine would significantly harm Maine communities and the environment. And, just like the Northern Pass proposal, there is absolutely no evidence that the Maine power line would reduce climate-changing emissions at all.”
While Massachusetts has its own land-based resources that could host wind farms and other sizeable renewable energy projects, it has so far largely looked to northern New England and the ocean waters south of Nantucket, where offshore wind energy potential lies, for its major clean energy projects.
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