PORTLAND, Maine — Maine's highest court on Tuesday breathed new life into a $1 billion transmission line that aims to serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower, ruling that a statewide vote rebuking the project was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the retroactive nature of the referendum last year violated the project developer's constitutional rights, sending it back to a lower court for further proceedings.
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.
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. 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 were already clearing trees and setting poles when the governor asked for work to be suspended after the referendum. 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 November 2021 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.
Attorneys representing interveners in the case against the New England Clean Energy Project said this was a big decision in favor of NECEC, but allows the Bureau of Parks and Lands et al. to prove NECEC is impacted by the voter-approved referendum requiring the project to have legislature approval.
"To have vested rights you have to have several factors, and one of the ones we think is important is if your schedule is being artificially altered to achieve vested rights," Jamie Kilbreth said, who is representing the Natural Resources Council and an intervener against the project. "If I were NECEC, I would be happy because they said they may have some vested rights and we take comfort in the fact they have to establish those rights."
Thorn Dickinson, the president and CEO of NECEC Transmission, said he considers it a win for the project, but awaits the high court's decision on the public lands case.
"We do know the court has additional work to do and we're going to continue to evaluate that and determine the next steps," Dickinson said.
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.
The high-stakes campaign put environmental and conservation groups at odds, and pitted utilities backing the project against operators of fossil fuel-powered plants that stand to lose money.