Hydro-Québec mounts last-ditch effort to revive stalled power line project through Maine
Maine Supreme Court to hear arguments on 2 cases concerning multibillion dollar project
Hydro-Québec will be mounting a last-ditch effort to try to save a controversial transmission line project in Maine's highest court Tuesday.
Maine residents quashed the project after 59 per cent voted to ban the construction of the 233-kilometre hydro corridor in a referendum last November. The project, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission LLC (NECEC), has been on hold since the historic vote, at the request of Maine's governor.
Now, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments from various parties about the constitutionality of the referendum itself, in addition to a challenge of a lease on public land. Either one could put the project in jeopardy.
This could be the last chance for proponents to get approval for the project, which would see Quebec supplying Massachusetts with renewable energy for 20 years and is estimated to generate $10 billion US for Hydro-Québec over that time period.
Lynn St-Laurent, spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, said the Quebec Crown corporation and the parent company of its U.S. partner, Central Maine Power (CMP), will argue that the referendum unjustly annuls permits granted by executive and judicial powers, which already led to hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures.
"[The referendum] retroactively seeks to repeal those authorizations and stop those projects, so we will be making the case that that is unconstitutional," said St-Laurent. "Every permit was obtained after a rigorous process."
She said CMP owner Avangrid spent some $450 million US last year to clear 86 per cent of the corridor in Maine and install 120 structures, as CMP began construction "on good faith reliance" of those permits.
Orlando Delogu, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Maine School of Law, said cancelling a project initiated several years prior, 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 language would amend the state constitution for consideration of future similar projects, which effectively changes the constitution — doing "what is expressly prohibited."
More than a thousand pages of briefs have been filed with the court by experts and various parties.
'Lousy deal' for Mainers, says opponent
Meanwhile, energy companies, conservationists and other critics are calling on the court to uphold the validity of the referendum, some arguing that CMP proceeded with its work knowing the risks of challenges.
"The permits were subject to appeals," said Tom Saviello, a well-known opponent of the project and former Republican senator from Maine. "If you move forward, you move forward at your own risk."
He said the project is "a lousy deal" for Mainers as the state is projected to see a total of $258 million US in economic benefits, while Hydro-Québec and CMP would see billions.
Opponents have also long viewed the project as providing too little benefit considering the damage to their state's northern forests — "a precious place for Mainers," said Saviello.
The planned project would carry 1,200 megawatts of electricity over a 336-kilometre high-voltage transmission line between Thetford Mines, Que., and Lewiston, Maine. Of the 233 kilometres planned on the U.S. side, 85 kilometres would cut through a forested area. Clearing work was already well underway at the time of the referendum.
According to 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 Natural Resources Council of Maine, has expressed a great deal of skepticism about the real environmental benefits of Hydro-Québec energy, questioning whether the project would actually reduce GHG emissions.
WATCH | Drone footage showing the forest clearing in Maine along the project line:
The referendum result is the latest legal hurdle to put the project at risk. In August, a state judge ruled that the project lacked authority to cross a 1.6-kilometre stretch of public land in West Forks, Somerset County.
The judge said a lease, issued by Maine's Bureau of Public Lands to CMP in 2014, was invalid due to a clause in the state constitution that says public land cannot be substantially altered without a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature.
The Supreme Court will also consider this case Tuesday.
Although it gets less attention, this dispute alone could derail the entire project. Bypassing the land would require new approvals and, consequently, additional time and cost. Meanwhile, the NECEC must be commissioned no later than August 2024, according to the contract with Massachusetts.
For Hydro-Québec, this challenge is simply a way for opponents to thwart its plans. "All the permits have been challenged by opponents for the past three years," said spokesperson St. Laurent.
"The strategy of the opponents, either gas companies or gas company-funded groups, has been to try to bog down the project in a tide of legal challenges."
In its 2021 annual report, Hydro-Québec disclosed it could lose $536 million if the project is dropped, not to mention the potential revenue loss of $10 billion over 20 years.
This sum doesn't include the $20 million spent in recent years on lobbying and advertising for the project or the $46 million loss in 2019 following the failure of its first project to export power to the U.S. through New Hampshire, which had the same objectives.
"Should [this project] be unsuccessful, we will cross that bridge when we get to it," said St-Laurent, adding the utility company is confident in its case.
The court is expected to release its decision this summer.
With files from Radio-Canada's Mathieu Dion and Chloe Ranaldi