Despite passage of a 2021 referendum aiming to kill the project, the stalled Central Maine Power Co. hydropower corridor is on life support, although one major obstacle was cleared by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday.
That decision upheld a 2020 public land lease given to CMP and its affiliates for the project in rural Somerset County. Anti-corridor officials argued that the lease granted by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills needed to be approved by supermajorities in the Legislature because the changes would amount to a “substantial alteration” of public land under the Maine Constitution. Justices disagreed, reversing a 2021 decision by a lower-court judge.
It was a substantial victory for CMP, but the response from its side was somewhat tepid. A top lawyer for the company’s parent said it was “pleased” with the ruling and will determine “our next steps for this critical project.” State Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a prominent corridor opponent, assailed the court.
“The job of the Supreme Court is to serve the people of Maine and to protect our Constitution,” he said in a statement. “With this ruling, they have instead sucker-punched the people of Maine and subverted our Constitution.”
But the corridor is not out of the proverbial woods yet. A case over the referendum’s constitutionality is only beginning its path through a lower court that will determine whether CMP and allies had “vested rights” to the project prior to last November. If it can prove it started work in good-faith reliance that the project was legal then, the referendum would be unconstitutional and the stalled project could restart.
This is an open question that will stretch deep into next year, requiring a lengthy discovery process and a potential jury trial, which brings us to the question of timing given the end-of-2023 deadline for project construction set by Massachusetts, which is funding the major expansion of the regional grid.
There are also political questions in Massachusetts. While the corridor was backed by outgoing Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Democratic Gov.-elect Maura Healey was skeptical of climate benefits as attorney general. Lawmakers there have been examining alternatives, including a wind power line that will connect Aroostook County to the regional grid.
Dating back to well before Mainers voted, corridor opponents, who were notably funded during the campaign by fossil-fuel interests trying to maintain their shares in the power market, have carefully laid mines in front of the unpopular utility and its major project. The final one is before the lower court now in this timing war.