PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s highest court on Tuesday breathed new life into a $1 billion transmission line to serve as conduit for Canadian hydropower, ruling there was merit in developers’ claims that a referendum rebuking the project was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the retroactive nature of the statewide vote to stop the project would violate the developers' constitutional rights if substantial construction began in good faith before the referendum. The case now goes back to a lower court to make a determination.
The court did not rule in a separate case that focuses on a lease for a 1-mile portion of the proposed power line that crosses state land.
Developers claimed victory in the latest legal development, but the project remains in limbo for the time being, and legal proceedings will continue. "It ain't over until it’s over," vowed Tom Saviello, a leading opponent.
Central Maine Power’s parent company and Hydro Quebec teamed up on the project that would supply up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England power grid. That’s enough electricity for 1 million homes.
Most of the proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) power transmission line would be built along existing corridors, but a new 53-mile (85-kilometer) section was needed to reach the Canadian border.
Workers had been clearing trees and setting poles for months when the governor asked for work to be suspended after the referendum last year. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection later suspended its permit, but that could be reversed depending on the outcome of legal proceedings.
The high court was asked to weigh in on two separate lawsuits. Developers sought to declare the referendum unconstitutional while another lawsuit focused on a lease allowing transmission lines to cross a short segment of state-owned land.
Supporters say bold projects such as this one, funded by ratepayers in Massachusetts, are necessary to battle climate change and introduce additional electricity into a region that’s heavily reliant on natural gas, which can cause spikes in energy costs.
Critics say the project's environmental benefits are overstated — and that it would harm the woodlands in western Maine.
Saviello, a former state lawmaker, said Mainers don’t want the project and opposition groups are treating the battle as a marathon that’s nearing the end. “You can see the end in sight and it’s longer and harder,” he said.
In a statement, the New England Clean Energy Connect accused fossil fuel interests of backing the fight against the project, filing “challenge after challenge in a desperate effort to hold onto their share of the market.”
It was the second time the Supreme Judicial Court was asked to weigh in on a referendum aimed at killing the project. The first referendum proposal never made it onto the ballot after the court raised constitutional concerns.
Although the project is funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, the introduction of so much electricity to the grid would serve to stabilize or reduce electricity rates for all consumers, proponents contend.
The referendum on the project was the costliest in Maine history, topping $90 million and underscoring deep divisions.
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