In this May 28, 2019, photo a homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection said Thursday that it may pull its permit of the $1 billion hydropower corridor through western Maine after a judge’s contested ruling that put the project’s route at risk.

Commissioner Melanie Loyzim told the Central Maine Power Co. affiliate overseeing the corridor’s construction that the department may suspend or revoke its permit after a Superior Court judge ruled this week that the Bureau of Parks and Lands did not have the authority to grant 2014 and 2020 leases on public lands in rural Somerset County.

The decision is the first major regulatory setback for the corridor. Absent a valid lease or an alternative that has not emerged, the Central Maine Power Co. affiliate constructing the line has no viable route through western Maine, putting the state permit and others at risk with an anti-corridor referendum on the November ballot ahead of the estimated operational date of mid-2023.

Judge Michaela Murphy ruled Tuesday that the state needed to conduct further analysis of whether the corridor would substantially alter public lands. The Maine Constitution requires any project that does so on state lands needs a two-thirds vote by both chambers of the Legislature.

Loyzim alluded to the importance of the public lands lease, calling it a “small” but “necessary” part of the overall project that, if lost, would prevent the corridor from bringing electricity from the Quebec province through Maine into the New England grid. David Madore, a spokesperson for the department, said the license would have to be amended if a new route was proposed but none have been proposed yet.

The CMP affiliate is allowed 15 days to ask for a hearing on the potential suspension. The company on Friday filed a notice saying it will appeal Murphy’s decision, as did the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. If a permit suspension came, it would last until the appeals process finishes and could be lifted if the lease is restored, a new lease is granted or CMP rerouted the corridor.

The notice followed a Wednesday request for a stay on all new clearing and construction from lawyer James Kilbreth, who represented challengers to the lease including the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Kilbreth told Loyzim and the Board of Environmental Protection that a delay was necessary so the public would not be “irreparably harmed” by construction in an area that might not be allowed. He requested a stay by Monday.

On Friday, Kilbreth called Loyzim’s decision an “encouraging and appropriate action” that recognized the importance of the lease. Any reconsideration of the corridor’s route would likely trigger a review of the project’s federal approvals, most notably an Army Corps of Engineers permit, Kilbreth said.

Getting a lease through the Legislature would be tough. A non-binding joint order saying the corridor’s path required such approval passed both chambers on the last day of the 2021 session, meaning winning two-thirds approval for the lease would be virtually impossible.

That leaves the question of rerouting. Under former Gov. Paul LePage in 2014, former Bureau of Parks and Lands Director Tom Desjardin — now a spokesperson for Senate Republicans — floated an alternative route in 2014 that would have avoided the contested area. A state attorney concluded the route might not need legislative approval, but it never gained traction.

CMP considered five alternatives, according to the environmental protection department’s final order on the permit. But each was problematic, either crossing too many conserved or undeveloped lands — the kinds of areas applicants must seek to avoid — or would be too difficult to obtain permits on or require more land clearing.

Burying the corridor underground presented a financial challenge, with doing so in the Beattie Township to roughly the West Forks region costing a projected $640 million. A proposal to run the corridor along Route 201 and Spencer Road was also deemed problematic due to state regulations, a lack of space and the “difficult” task of getting approval from landowners.

But opponents of the project have long argued the company did not thoroughly consider different routes. Kilbreth said that could prove an issue now.

“The problem of not being able to connect the line, of having the line connect to nowhere, is a problem for CMP at the state and federal level,” he said.