Judge allows transmission line ban to take effect

·5 min read

Dec. 16—A law passed by voters in November banning a controversial power transmission line through western Maine will take effect Sunday after a Maine judge ruled against a last-minute injunction Thursday.

The ruling is another blow to a $1 billion energy project planned for years by Avangrid, parent company of Central Maine Power, although it's not the final word. Avangrid's lawsuit challenging the ban will continue and it could appeal the injunction ruling to Maine's Supreme Judicial Court.

Avangrid filed a lawsuit against the ban a day after voters passed it in a Nov. 2 citizen-initiated referendum that followed the most expensive ballot-question campaign in state history. The referendum vote prohibited the construction of New England Energy Connect, a controversial 145-mile high-voltage transmission line through western Maine.

Avangrid, through its affiliate NECEC Transmission LLC, also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to try to prevent the law from going into effect as scheduled while its lawsuit is pending. The law is set to take effect Sunday.

Judge Michael Duddy, ruling for the Business and Consumer Court, said allowing the citizen initiative to become law while the lawsuit works its way through the court would not harm the company irreparably, but could damage democracy.

Duddy agreed that delaying construction of the transmission corridor will mean substantial economic harm to Avangrid.

But, he said, "that harm does not outweigh the harm to voter confidence and participatory democracy that would result from preventing the initiative from becoming law while this legal challenge is pending."

In a statement, Avangrid said it was disappointed in the decision, but confident the full legal process will determine the law passed in the referendum is unconstitutional.

"As one of the region's most important clean energy projects, the NECEC will benefit Maine and all New Englanders by reducing the region's dependence on fossil fuels which will result in cleaner air, lower energy prices and improved reliability," the company said.

The company is reviewing the order and considering options, but would not say whether it plans to appeal the injunction ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

"The facts are clear: the NECEC project is good for Maine and for the region and will help address the energy, economic and climate issues we face," it said. "That is why we remain committed to this project and its many benefits and look forward to restarting construction as soon as we are able."

Avangrid argues that the referendum, which is retroactive to 2014, violates its "vested rights" to the property, meaning it had valid permits to start construction before the referendum.

Avangrid has spent at least $450 million on the project so far, with dozens of miles of woodland in northwest Maine cleared for the transmission line.

In his order, Duddy said he was not convinced by Avangrid's arguments on vested rights or its contention that the law violated other parts of the state constitution and would irreparably harm the company.

However, Duddy also said the law that applies to the case is uncertain on many disputed points that should be decided by the state's highest court.

"Thus, while the court is unpersuaded by the plaintiff's legal arguments, this case presents many difficult questions," Duddy said. "Plaintiffs have legitimate counter arguments on all disputed points of law."

Thursday's ruling was the latest in a string of setbacks for the corridor project. In November, almost 60 percent of voters approved the referendum to ban the transmission line.

The new law bans the construction of high-impact electric-transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and requires the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactively to 2020. It also requires the Legislature to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public lands retroactively to 2014.

"This is a big win for Maine people who voted overwhelmingly to terminate the CMP corridor," said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at Natural Resources Council of Maine, a prominent opponent of the project.

"We appreciate the quick decision by the judge to reject CMP's effort to subvert the will of Maine voters and look forward to the referendum becoming law on Sunday," Didisheim said in a statement.

Despite the voters' rejection, Avangrid continued clearing forest and other development related to the transmission line. It stopped in mid-November after a request from Gov. Janet Mills while pursuing its lawsuit against the referendum.

Late last month, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection suspended the construction license for the corridor. The license will remain suspended until Avangrid wins its court case or legal fight over a public land lease in the project's path.

At the same time, Avangrid is under pressure to complete the project by August 2024 or risk losing its contract. The transmission line was commissioned to bring 1,200 megawatts of power from producer Hydro-Quebec to the New England grid through a station in Lewiston.

The project is being built to help Massachusetts meet its clean energy goals and will be paid for by electric customers in the Bay State.

Avangrid has argued it would bring cleaner, cheaper energy to New England generally. The company pledged $250 million in benefits to Mainers including electric rate relief, help with energy efficiency and economic development. When construction was suspended, those payments were too.

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