The first pole of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor is prepared to be installed on Feb. 9, 2021, near The Forks. Attorneys delivered opening statements Monday in a trial that'll determine whether whether a $1 billion electric transmission corridor is built. The power line would bring Canadian hydropower to the New England grid. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Jurors heard opening arguments in state court on Monday about whether a $1 billion hydropower corridor project through western Maine should be allowed to proceed despite being rejected by voters in 2021.

Representatives for companies associated with Central Maine Power Co. presented slides showing infrastructure already built, saying they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars and should be allowed to continue. State lawyers argued developers sped up construction in an effort to circumvent the referendum and defended the power of voters to reject major projects.

Jurors now have a tough task ahead of them in a case around complex energy issues and the constitutionality of the new law set by the referendum. Their decision will likely set a precedent for how Maine expands the regional energy supply, whether investors feel they can rely on granted permits to complete projects and the power citizens carry to make laws.

The trial opened on Monday with jury selection and arguments in business court in Portland. Closing arguments are scheduled for April 19. Jurors are expected to focus on when key infrastructure was put up and how that relates to Maine’s referendum process.

Maine’s referendum barring the corridor came almost 10 months after construction began and after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, John Aromando, the attorney for plaintiffs NECEC Transmission and Avangrid Networks, noted in his opening statement. The project also was based on a schedule created in 2018 to complete the project by December 2022, but all deadlines have been delayed by challenges, appeals or lawsuits.

“This is a case about finding whether Maine is a place where people can rely on the valid and final permit authorizing the project or not,” he said.

Aromando argued the second and final attempt at getting a referendum on the ballot came too late, after the project completed significant construction. An union representative speaking for the project as an intervenor in the case said his workers were earning a total of $1 million a week on wages and benefits before work was halted after the referendum became law.

The plaintiffs had to build in good faith to be able to claim the “vested rights” needed to move forward despite disapproval by voters, said Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Bolton, who is representing the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

But they expedited the schedule, he said, adding there is evidence to show that. He cited documents showing the project started three months earlier than initially planned. The project‘s builders also knew that some provisions of the referendum would be retroactive when they started putting poles into the ground.

“There‘s nothing inherently wrong with retroactive laws,” Bolton said.

Avangrid and its subsidiary, CMP, won the bid from Massachusetts in February 2018 for their $950 million joint project with Hydro-Quebec to bring 1,200 megawatts of transmission capacity through a 145-mile transmission line from the Canadian border to Lewiston. The project, called the New England Clean Energy Connect, is being run by NECEC Transmission, an Avangrid subsidiary. The project has obtained all major permits.

CMP and Avangrid have been engaged in more than five years of legal challenges and efforts to secure public and regulatory approvals. Avangrid and NECEC Transmission said in their lawsuit challenging the referendum’s validity that they had spent almost $450 million before the project was stopped, or more than 40 percent of its total estimated cost. They also said 122 miles, or 80 percent, of the right-of-way for the project had been cleared.

The project was suspended in November 2021 following the referendum. But Maine’s high court in August found that the part of the referendum that retroactively prohibited the corridor infringed on CMP’s rights to build it. It referred the matter to the business court to determine whether and the extent to which CMP and its allies had vested rights to the project before it was halted.

The project was originally scheduled to start in 2019 and be up and running. The updated completion target is December 2023 if the project can restart, CMP said.

Judge Michael Duddy of the business court presided over the case, filed by NECEC Transmission and others against the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry along with other state agencies.

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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...