Avangrid Networks asked a state court Wednesday to block state officials from putting a referendum on the November ballot that could overturn the 2019 decision by regulators to allow the construction of a controversial 145-mile hydropower transmission line from Quebec to Lewiston.

The suit, filed in Cumberland County, argues the referendum would be unconstitutional because it tramples on the rights of regulators, legislators, judges and other officials to weigh the issues involved in the proposed $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect project and reach a conclusion.

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Allowing a public vote to overrule the green light given by regulators would “explode, blow up, destroy an administrative process” that carefully looked into every aspect of the project, Tony Buxton, counsel for the Industrial Energy Consumers’ Group, said Wednesday.

Buxton, who represents some of the largest electricity users in Maine, said it is critical to rely on science and facts rather than popular emotions.

Supporters of the referendum gathered signatures to put the question on the ballot in opposition to Central Maine Power, which is part of the Spanish-owned Avangrid. They said the transmission line will damage Maine’s environment, hurt homegrown efforts to shift to green power and benefit mostly the Massachusetts ratepayers who are paying for the project instead of Mainers who will have to live with its towers and wires.

Sandi Howard, principal officer for the NO CMP Corridor PAC, called the suit “just CMP’s latest stunt to try and keep the people of Maine from having a say over their for-profit corridor project. It’s ludicrous for a foreign company to go to such lengths and expense to silence 66,000 Mainers who signed petitions to make this referendum a reality.”

“The bottom line is that the people of Maine deserve the right to decide what goes through their backyards, and this November, they will have that opportunity,” she said Wednesday.

Thorn Dickinson, the chief executive officer and president of NECEC Transmission, an Avangrid subsidiary, speaks at a meeting in Wales in January. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Thorn Dickinson, the chief executive officer and president of NECEC Transmission, an Avangrid subsidiary which is overseeing the project, said Wednesday that the referendum would undercut the long administrative process that led to the Public Utilities Commission’s May 3, 2019, decision to grant it a certificate of public convenience and necessity, a key step in the approval process.

Allowing voters to vote on that decision, he said, would set “an incredibly dangerous precedent” that would make anyone eyeing future projects in Maine approach them warily at best.

“If this referendum is put on the ballot,” Dickinson said, any governmental decision could be overturned arbitrarily after it has been made, effectively gutting the whole point of the administrative process created by the Legislature.

Sue Ely, an attorney who serves as the climate and clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said there’s not much merit to the lawsuit.

She said it is “a bit of a slap in the face” to those who signed petitions to put the issue on the ballot, a provision she said the Maine Constitution specifically allows.

“These challenges are outrageous,” Ely said. “It’s time for us to vote.”

Dickinson and Buxton said the voices of opponents were heard loud and clear during extensive hearings and testimony about the proposal that regulatory staff considered before recommending approval of the plan.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said in a prepared statement, that “regulatory consistency is the hallmark for economic development and investment in our state, or any state. When the referendum process is used to overturn a permitting decision and moves the goal posts at the end of that process, we risk critical investments in Maine. This is not only an improper use of the referendum process, it is one that we cannot sit on the sidelines and let stand.”

Buxton said if the process shifts away from science and careful examination of the facts to become a public spectacle, decisions will be made based on “who has the best TV ads and lies the best.”

He said it’s far better to rely on experts who understand the science and the issues.

Buxton, whose group has often opposed CMP in the past, said the hydropower project is clearly needed.

He said it will lower energy costs, ensure reliable sources of power and help with a much-needed effort to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Both Buxton and Dickinson said fossil fuel companies are fighting the proposed line because it would mean fewer profits for them.

The suit, filed against Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, the official responsible for overseeing the ballot, argues that the proposed referendum exceeds the power of the people because it steps on the authority of the executive branch and is too specific.

Instead of pushing for a general policy that would bind everyone, it simply argues the NECEC project’s approval must be reversed.

Dickinson said it would open the door to a stream of specific ballot questions concocted by special interests.

He asked, for example, whether anyone would think it’s proper for a referendum to single out a single lobsterman’s right to harvest the tasty sea creatures by revoking only his permit while doing nothing to the rest of his industry.

Buxton said a referendum banning all direct current transmission lines would be more fair than one that simply seeks to stop one project.

Attorneys for Avangrid asked the court to issue a declaratory judgment that the initiative “exceeds the scope of the legislative powers reserved to the people” under the Maine Constitution, that it usurps powers reserved to the executive and judicial branches and that it singles out one corporation instead of applying the law generally.

It asks the court to prevent the initiative from appearing on the Nov. 3 ballot as well as any other relief deemed just and appropriate.

The state will get a chance to make its case before a judge makes any ruling.

The company intends to build the new line on CMP land that includes 53 miles through a new corridor close to the Quebec border. The rest follows an existing corridor through western Maine that would connect the line to a new converter station in Lewiston that would be tied into the New England power grid.

The company said construction will begin as soon as final environmental permits are received, probably within a couple of months. It expects to have the line in service by the end of 2022.

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