The day after Maine voters passed a referendum to reject a transmission line that would bring hydroelectric power from Canada to Massachusetts, one of the companies behind the project sued to overturn the vote.
The transmission line, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, is a key part of Massachusetts’ plans to combat global warming. The hydroelectric power would help slash carbon emissions in the state by half before the end of the decade.
But the $1 billion project, which has been under construction for months, was dealt a serious blow Tuesday when 60 percent of Maine voters approved Ballot Question 1 to kill the power line.
Then on Wednesday, Avangrid, the energy company building the line, filed suit in Maine Superior Court, saying the referendum was illegal on several fronts, including that it overturned a lease that is protected by both the state and federal constitutions.
“We’re moving forward to bring a project that we believe in incredibly about what it can do for the climate and what it can do for Maine,” said Thorn Dickinson, chief executive of the transmission line project. “We’ll continue to move forward with that.”
The transmission line has been a hot-button issue in Maine, and by the time voters took to the polls on Tuesday, they were subject to months of TV-ad bombardment, omnipresent yard signs, and relentless text-message campaigns. Opponents of the transmission line feared the project would cut through precious, untouched wilderness to benefit Massachusetts, with little net benefit for Maine.
On Wednesday, despite the outcome of the vote, construction work on the line continued, with more than 400 workers at three sites in different parts of the state. As of Wednesday afternoon, 124 miles of land along the project had been cleared and 120 structures had been installed, according to Dickinson.
Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Council of Maine — a vocal opponent of the transmission line — called on the state to stop all clearing and construction work immediately. It also prodded the Baker administration in Massachusetts to find an “alternative option for meeting its climate goals without imposing significant environmental harm on another New England state,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director of the council in an e-mailed statement Tuesday night.
The project would add 145 miles of new transmission line, connecting to the existing system in Lewiston, and upgrade another 50 miles of existing line. It is the result of a deal among Hydro-Quebec, the state of Massachusetts, and Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of Avangrid. It was expected to start delivering energy to Massachusetts by December 2023, though with the Tuesday’s election results, even if the hydroelectric project wins in court and proceeds, that deadline is becoming elusive.
A spokesman for the Baker administration would only say, “The Administration is reviewing the outcome of the ballot initiative in Maine and will be working with Avangrid and our regional partners on the path ahead to securing more affordable, renewable energy for Massachusetts.”
The governors of Maine and Massachusetts endorsed the project, and US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm took the rare step last week of weighing in on a local ballot initiative, urging voters to support the transmission line. Beyond the needs of Massachusetts’ clean energy portfolio, the challenges faced by the transmission line make clear the difficulties of getting these kinds of projects around the country approved — a necessary part of President Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035.
“If we’re going to get to the decarbonization of the grid and the electrification of all buildings and transportation, we’re going to need massive financial capital to go into transmission projects,” said Jeff Marks, Maine director and senior policy advocate at Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization. “This happened to be one that was on the books and permitted — something real and current. We thought that from a climate perspective, this project was a fairly good option to get us to where we need to go.”
But with record-breaking political ad spending and a bombardment of confusing messaging, it was hard for Maine voters to tell whether the line was actually good for the climate.
The companies backing the project had pledged additional benefits aimed at cutting emissions in Maine, including more than $30 million to support the purchase of electric vehicles and electric heat pumps. Some of those payments, such as $5 million to the state’s electric vehicle rebate program, have already been made, and will not be recouped if the project is ultimately scrapped, said Dickinson. And, if the project does not go forward, any remaining payments from the companies will not be made.
But according to groups opposing the transmission line — an odd mix of bedfellows that included fossil fuel companies, environmental groups, and Fox news host Tucker Carlson, who owns a house in Maine — there would be no climate benefit from the project
At the polls on Tuesday, the conflicted messaging was apparent, as climate voters with the same motivations cast their ballot in opposite directions.
“From what I’ve seen, it’s not going to be that beneficial to Maine,” said Hobit Lafaye, after voting at her South Portland precinct to reject the transmission line. “Protect the climate by destroying our land? It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Standing outside the voting precinct at the Howard C. Reiche Community School on Portland’s West End, Ryan O’Neil, 42, said that after extensive research, he voted to allow the transmission line. When it comes to climate change, he said, “We can’t just do nothing.”
“It felt kind of like the goal of opposing the transmission line was really just NIMBY-ism,” O’Neil said. To him, the vote for climate was a vote to allow the transmission line to be built.
If Avangrid’s lawsuit prevails, and the project manages to survive, other hurdles still remain. Avangrid and NextEra, which owns the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and has spent millions opposing the transmission line, are currently battling before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over a key upgrade. And on top of that, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection is considering suspending the permit for the project after earlier this summer a Maine state Superior Court judge terminated a lease the judge found was issued illegally.