The lattice towers Central Maine Power said it is proposing for its New England Clean Energy Connect hydropower line from Canada to Lewiston. Credit: Courtesy of Central Maine Power

HALLOWELL, Maine — Maine’s utilities regulators on Thursday agreed to grant a key permit for Central Maine Power’s controversial $1 billion proposal to build a corridor through western Maine to deliver hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.

During a special session, the three commissioners of the Maine Public Utilities Commission agreed with their staff’s recommendation on March 29 to grant CMP the needed certificate of public convenience and necessity for its project, saying the benefits of the project outweigh its costs and detriments.

In addition to concurring with the staff’s Examiners’ Report in their Thursday morning deliberations, the three commissioners supported a stipulation with more than $250 million in benefits over the 40-year life of the project to local towns along the corridor route. Gov. Janet Mills’ office signed the stipulation along with some environmental groups and other parties.

CMP’s New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, project will bring hydropower through a 145-mile corridor, 53 miles of which are through areas in western Maine that would require building the transmission infrastructure.

At Thursday’s hearing, PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy and commissioners Randall D. Davis and R. Bruce Williamson reviewed their comments before voting unanimously to support the project.

“The end result is a good result for Maine ratepayers and a necessary one,” Vannoy said. “I believe there will be benefits in the hundreds of millions of dollars to Maine.”

He said he expects the commission to issue its final order within a week. That order will be the certificate. The order will include language requiring CMP to provide information on how much tax the utility paid in each town along the corridor over a 10-year period.

Two key questions for the commission were whether the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and whether it would have harmful effects on the historic, scenic and recreational value of the area, particularly the new infrastructure to be built in a 53-mile working forest to the Canadian border. That area also includes the Kennebec River Gorge, under which CMP proposes to build its transmission line.

The commission agreed that adverse historic, scenic and recreational effects are possible, but ruled that the project’s benefits outweigh the potential negatives. The commissioners, however, could not put a dollar figure to the value of the area.

“I’ve been camping, fishing and snowmobiling in that area,” Davis said. “I’ve flown the entire length of the corridor and don’t see the effects using the extreme terms that are often used,” he said of language by opposition groups.

Vannoy added that the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission are looking more rigorously into the adverse effects.

Commissioners also agreed that there is reason to believe greenhouse gas emission reductions could result from the project, but acknowledged that there is no definition of what constitutes a public benefit.

Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development at Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, said he is very pleased with the PUC’s decision.

“The proceeding confirms the substantial economic and environmental benefits this project will bring to the region,” he said.

Dickinson said CMP recognized that there are adverse impacts with a large energy project, but the company is trying to mitigate them and is open to additional mitigation ideas.

Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said he feels good about the decision.

“The stipulation was the only way to guarantee ratepayers of Maine to get a better result,” he said.

Hobbins had earlier bristled when CMP last fall offered to provide $50 million over 40 years to several programs and initiatives in Massachusetts, but had not yet offered anything to Maine ratepayers.

The project’s opponents, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, still aren’t convinced of the project’s Maine or global benefits.

“Today the PUC chose CMP’s corporate interests over the interests of Maine and its people,” said Sue Ely, NRCM’s clean energy attorney. “It understates the damage this project would cause to Maine’s North Woods, the negative impact it would have on local clean energy projects and the failure by CMP to demonstrate that the project would provide actual net benefits for our climate.”

Six of the nine intervenors, including NRCM, who submitted comments asked the commission not to approve the certificate.

Today’s ruling comes 20 months into the case, which the commission opened on Aug. 28, 2017. Since then, the PUC has held deliberations for the public and for intervenors, or parties to the case, and has received 1,360 public comments on the proposed project.

The PUC’s ruling came a day after the Legislature considered several bills that could affect the project, including one that would require every town in the path of the transmission line to approve it by referendum.

The Legislature’s energy committee on Wednesday heard the town-approval bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the committeee’s co-chair and a CMP critic, and two other bills to make it harder to use eminent domain for transmission line projects.

Another bill under consideration by the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources committee, LD 640, would require an independent study of greenhouse gas effects related to the power line.

Anthony Buxton, an attorney at Preti Flaherty representing the pro-project Industrial Energy Consumers Group, said interference by the Legislature would harm Maine and its ability to fight climate change.

“Do we decide energy policy by partisan politics or do we decide it on science and on the considered judgment of the regulatory officials?” he asked. “If we have a process which allows a party to file for one solution and then have it reversed by the political process, what we have is no regulatory process at all. The battle over how we decide our energy future has begun.”

While a major step ahead for CMP, the PUC ruling represents just one step in a series of necessary regulatory approvals. It also must get two permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, one for site location and the other for compliance with the Natural Resources Protection Act. A decision on those permits is expected in late October or early November.

In addition, it needs a certificate for transmission facilities in unorganized territory from the Land Use Planning Commission.

Those two groups held joint deliberations from April 1 to 5, and plan a final day of deliberations on May 9 at the Cross Insurance Arena in Bangor.

The other required approvals for the CMP project are an energy contract approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit, an ISO New England section 1.3.9 approval and a U.S. Department of Energy presidential permit.

Municipal approvals also are required for construction of project components such as substations and transmission structures. The type and number of permits will vary, depending on location.

CMP’s Dickinson said he hopes to start construction early next year. The project would go online in 2022.