Backers of a $1 billion hydropower project won a decisive victory in a Maine court last week, but remaining hurdles are likely to delay the restart of construction for months.
A key permit remains suspended for now, and developers need to re-establish a work timeline, Catherine Stempien, CEO of Avangrid Networks, the parent of Central Maine Power Co., told Wall Street analysts during a Wednesday earnings call. She said Avangrid and NECEC Transmission, the subsidiary administering the project, will be working on the new construction timeline over the coming weeks and months.
“I expect that we’ll have more information in mid-year about what the new construction timeline will be,” she said.
The delay despite a favorable decision underscores the challenges that the project has faced, including court, permitting and political ones over the past five years. Avangrid, CMP and Hydro-Quebec won the bid from Massachusetts to bring 1,200 megawatts of transmission capacity through a 145-mile transmission line from the Canadian border to Lewiston.
Avangrid and NECEC are now coordinating with construction companies, project partner Hydro-Quebec and the electric distribution companies in Massachusetts, Stempien said. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in 2019 approved power purchase agreements from those companies key to the transmission line. That state is funding the project.
The jury decision on April 20 that Avangrid and NECEC had a constitutional right to finish the project despite state voters rebuking it in a 2021 referendum seemed to clear the way for construction to resume. But the developers need to regain a permit that was suspended by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection after the vote and then reestablish a project timeline with contractors.
The suspension order still is in effect, DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim wrote in a letter to NECEC Transmission, an Avangrid Networks affiliate, on April 25. In the letter obtained by the Bangor Daily News, Loyzim said the suspension will end if there is a final disposition of the challenge to the referendum in favor of NECEC and Avangrid.
That has not happened yet because all parties have 21 days from April 21, when the court entered the judgment from the trial, to appeal to Maine’s high court. Loyzim said the suspension will be in effect until either the period expires or a final decision is handed down by the high court.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an anti-corridor environmental group that worked against the project in the court case, declined to comment on whether it would launch an appeal.
Other caveats remain. Last July the Board of Environmental Protection, tasked with enforcing laws, denied appeals to the permit but said CMP would be able to keep access to the key permit if it prevails in two challenges. One was that it had to win the court case. If it did, construction would need to resume within two years for the permit to remain valid. The other is that it had to raise the amount of conservation land committed for the project by 8,000 acres to 50,000 acres.
Three Maine environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, have a pending lawsuit challenging Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Energy permits for the project. And pending appeals by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, NextEra Energy and a group of businesses and individuals in the West Forks area could potentially create further conditions for the project, Elizabeth Boepple, an attorney representing the anti-corridor West Forks group, said. The appeals in Superior Court challenge the BEP’s decision to grant the DEP permit.
“We are reviewing and reassessing our goals with the appeal” following the jury verdict, Boepple said. “Everyone is trying to sort out what the next steps are.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the name of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.