The first pole of the New England Clean Energy Connect project was put up in The Forks on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A heated debate over potential alternative routes for Central Maine Power Co.’s hydropower corridor took center stage at a Tuesday hearing aimed at determining whether the utility can proceed with its $1 billion project or must make changes costing tens of millions of dollars.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection held the hearing to consider whether it should suspend a permit it granted last year for Central Maine Power Co.’s $1 billion hydropower project. It was prompted by a judge’s August ruling that the state had no authority to issue CMP a lease for public land comprising about a mile of the corridor in rural Somerset County. If the lease is negated, other state approvals could unravel.

The hearing provided a forum for the project’s backers and foes two weeks before a statewide vote on Question 1, which is aimed at killing the project known formally as the New England Clean Energy Connect. CMP outlined contingency plans if the project is stalled by a vote, the contested lease or a change in permit status, but they would be expensive and permission to run on easements on neighboring land may be fraught with new concerns.

CMP presented two alternative routes should the lease be revoked, which  stirred up more controversy on Tuesday from landowners who said they will not grant easements for the project if it does cross their land. The company argued that it still might be allowed to run power lines underground that won’t change the use of the contested public land or the proposed alternatives if it is technically feasible or permitted.

It is not reasonable a few months after the high court’s decision to expect CMP to have the entire 145-mile corridor fully permitted and rights to alternative routes to one mile of it in place, said Tony Buxton, who represents the pro-corridor Industrial Energy Consumers’ Group.

“This is not hopscotch,” he said. “This is not ‘you step on a line and you’re out.’”

CMP said it could cost an extra $67 million to delay the project until the legal case over the land lease is settled, which is expected to happen in June 2022. Suspension of the project’s permit for at least nine months would make it impossible for CMP to meet a December 2023 target date to complete the project, said Thorn Dickinson, CEO and president of NECEC Transmission LLC, the CMP affiliate running the hydropower project. 

If the permit for the entire project is revoked and it is decommissioned, some $240 million in negotiated benefits for Mainers, including broadband connections and low-income rate relief, would be at risk.

But anti-corridor intervenors urged the department to suspend the project permit for various reasons, including that the utility should not be allowed to construct the rest of the 145-mile project running from the Canadian border to Lewiston, especially the 53-mile segment that involves cutting a new corridor, until legal disputes are settled.

Letting the project proceed except for the one-mile public area allows CMP “to create a sense of inevitability” that the project will be completed, said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a vocal opponent of the corridor.

“No further construction of the NECEC should take place until the alternative has been finally identified and approved in order to avoid unnecessary and highly detrimental impacts to the environment,” Jeffrey Reardon, director of the anti-corridor Maine Brook Trout Project, said.

In written testimony, Dickinson detailed how much of the project has been built and the company’s strategy if the project is halted. As of Oct. 4, some 108 miles of right of way have been cleared and 58 poles installed. Most clearing is to be completed by the end of the year.

Dickinson outlined two routes that could bypass the contested lease. One is west of Route 201 and the other would partially run through the Moosehead Conservation Easement Area and Cold Stream Conservation Area. Both would require new permitting.

But the Pierce Pond Watershed Trust wrote to the DEP saying its property west of Route 201 has a perpetual legal obligation to enforce its conservation easements, and it has not been contacted by CMP about possibly using the land. The trust also said the maps of the project it has seen are unclear as to where it might cross its property. The president of the Forest Society of Maine also told Dickinson in an email that a power line would not be permitted in its conservation easement in the second proposed option on land.

The court case over the lease remains active and could eventually be appealed to the state’s high court. CMP has argued the lease should be valid because the project does not substantially alter the use of public lands, the constitutional threshold that requires the Legislature to approve such leases. Project opponents who have pushed back on the lease have argued it should have been subject to legislative approval all along.

For now, the state has a range of options on the lease, including letting it stand, saying it needs legislative approval, revising it or terminating it. If the lease is invalidated, approval for the entire project could be at risk unless an alternative route is approved. The DEP could suspend the permit, meaning a temporary removal pending additional measures, or revoke it, requiring CMP to reapply and obtain a new one.

There is no requirement for when a decision must be issued in the DEP proceeding, Deputy Commissioner David Madore said. Post-hearing briefs can be submitted until Nov. 2 and reply briefs by Nov. 16. Corridor opponents asked for the post-hearing schedule to be accelerated, which supporters argued against. The DEP is considering the matter.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...