A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
After Maine voters rejected it in November, a key state permit was suspended for the $1 billion hydropower project whose ultimate fate is now tied up in two cases awaiting rulings from Maine’s high court.
That’s my tightest one-sentence summary of where the Central Maine Power Co. corridor stands after a long saga. This week, we are getting a blast from the past.
A 2020 appeal of that aforementioned permit is just now going to hearings before the Maine Board of Environmental Protection. Corridor foes rallied outside the Augusta Civic Center this morning before meetings set to run from Wednesday through Thursday morning.
While that permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is suspended now, that was because of the referendum and not for the reasons that opponents cited in 2020. The chair of the state board considering the appeal has already said it will not consider the two court challenges to the anti-corridor referendum and a public lease granted for the project, as well as the department’s suspension of the permit. Board staff have recommended keeping the permit in effect as it was with some relatively small changes.
It makes for a strange set of circumstances, resulting in a 2022 hearing on a permit suspended in 2021 based on 2020 facts. Both that and the delays have angered corridor opponents, who have recently accused the state board of mishandling the project.
Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton selectman and anti-corridor organizer, said in a recent Bangor Daily News Op-Ed that board members should “step up to demand a public hearing on the whole record and not an outdated appeal.”
This week’s hearings are about backup options. If CMP and its allies prevail here and in court, they would be able to resume construction. Foes are trying to block the permit in case they do not succeed in court. But there are no sure outcomes there. It remains possible that the high court could send elements of the cases back to lower courts for reconsideration.
At this point, delays are working against corridor backers with an end-of-2023 deadline to complete the project. Massachusetts is already examining alternatives to the corridor that it commissioned, with backup options including a proposed line through Aroostook County that so far lacks the political opposition that the western Maine project has carried.
Time means money and big effects on the regional energy picture. That is why all fronts of this battle matter greatly right now.