Avangrid Inc., the parent company of Central Maine Power and NECEC Transmission LLC, wasted no time filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the referendum Maine voters approved on Tuesday to stop a $1 billion power transmission project through western Maine.

The company issued a news release Wednesday afternoon announcing the lawsuit, filed in Maine Superior Court in Portland, alleging that Question 1 “is unconstitutional and violates both state and federal law.”

Avangrid also said it would press ahead with building the New England Clean Energy Connect power line project despite Tuesday’s overwhelming rejection of the project by Maine voters.

“While the outcome of this election is disappointing, it is not the end of the road and we will continue to advocate for this historic and important clean energy project,” the company said in a statement. “We have followed the rules every step of the way in a transparent and public process and have received every regulatory approval required for this project to proceed.”

In a separate interview, the president of NECEC Transmission, Thorn Dickinson, said construction is continuing because the company considers the vote part of an ongoing process, not a definitive outcome. Asked if that interpretation ignores the will of Maine voters, Dickinson said public opinion had been incorporated into more than three years of review that resulted in the company winning all necessary permits to start construction.

Dickinson said he met Wednesday morning with the NECEC project team and told them Avangrid will continue to fight for the project.

Mainers voted decisively on Tuesday to kill the $1 billion transmission line project in the western part of the state, an outcome that was fueled in part by distaste for the state’s largest utility and concerns about environmental impacts to the North Woods.

With most of Maine’s 571 precincts reporting results by Wednesday afternoon, 59 percent of voters had said “yes” to Question 1, a strong repudiation of CMP, Avangrid and Canadian energy supplier Hydro-Quebec, as well as plans to finish the NECEC project and put it into service. More than 240,000 Mainers voted to ban the project.

The “yes” vote registered a strong showing in nearly every part of the state, including Lewiston, which already has received nearly $1.6 million in property taxes tied to the valuation of a multimillion-dollar converter station.

IMAGES IMPACT VOTERS

Question 1 read: “Do you want to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and to require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactively to 2020, and to require the Legislature, retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public land?”

In the vote’s wake, opponents of the power line were reflecting on what contributed to the overwhelming rejection and how to hold Avangrid to account. And a national energy expert said Wednesday that the vote sent a sobering message to Northeast states with ambitious goals to phase out fossil fuels in favor of cleaner electricity.

Former state Sen. Tom Saviello celebrates with Sandi Howard at a Yes on 1 to reject the NECEC project election night watch party at Farmhouse Beer Garden. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Tom Saviello, an organizer of the Yes campaign, said the vote gives Maine people a voice in the development of the NECEC corridor and other transmission projects.

“They proved Mainers cannot be hoodwinked or bought off by CMP and Hydro-Quebec,” Saviello said. “I call on CMP to stop all construction, as the people of Maine have spoken.”

Yes on Question 1 strategists relied heavily on messaging that showed images of the NECEC corridor under construction, with trees cut and piles of limbs and soil. It was a way to graphically depict what many opponents saw as the destruction of the North Maine woods, and it had a powerful impact on voters, Saviello said.

“I think the visuals we put out showed what was really going on up there,” Saviello said. “People saw that and could connect to that. We played that all the time. Whatever the ad was, that was in the background.”

Beyond the emotional response to tree-cutting, he said, a sense that Mainers weren’t benefiting enough from the project, as well as CMP’s unfavorable public perception stemming from a mismanaged billing system rollout in 2017 and other missteps, contributed to the strong “yes” vote.

“The sense was, ‘I don’t like Central Maine Power,’ ”  he said. “ ‘They’re a bad actor. Why should I reward them?’ ”

PERMIT AT RISK?

Also Wednesday, a leading environmental group renewed its call for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to immediately suspend NECEC’s construction permit in light of the vote.

“We don’t believe the DEP can just ignore what the people of Maine enacted and let CMP cause more harm to the corridor,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Technically, the law isn’t enacted yet. Actions by the secretary of state and governor are needed first, pushing the effective date to roughly Jan. 3. But Didisheim said the DEP should act based on the imminent outcome.

The Natural Resources Council also is involved in a case at the DEP in which the commissioner is considering whether to suspend the project permit based on an improper lease issued to cross one mile of public lands. In a brief it filed for the case just before the vote, the group wrote:

“The need for such a suspension becomes even more compelling should the referendum that is being voted on today passes. Among other things, it prohibits a transmission line like the NECEC project from being built in the Upper Kennebec region. Although it seems likely that licensees will challenge the law should it pass, unless and until they obtain a court decision allowing them to proceed, the department should not allow continued clearing and construction of a route barred by statute.”

A DEP spokesman wasn’t available for comment Wednesday.

Both NECEC and the state of Maine are appealing a court decision that calls the lease into question. Gov. Janet Mills has been a vocal supporter of the project, considering it an important part of her quest to fight the impacts of climate change.

Mills issued a statement Wednesday saying that while she understands Mainers’ concerns about CMP’s management and service, the NECEC project is important for the region’s climate change fight.

“My concern continues to be, as it has been all along, that if the New England Clean Energy Connect is not built, consistent with the strict environmental conditions of the DEP permit, then Maine will lose a significant opportunity to advance the clean energy goals that are vital to combating climate change,” Mills said. “With (Tuesday’s) vote and with litigation expected on both sides of the question, I hope that the courts, as an independent arbiter, will act in a timely manner to provide clarity and resolve the matter so that we can put this controversy to rest, one way or the other.”

‘FATAL CONSEQUENCES’

Maine’s vote was being monitored by the utility industry in the Northeast, and the result sends a troubling signal, according to Timothy Fox, vice president of ClearView Energy Partners, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. Following the 2018 rejection of a similar project in New Hampshire called Northern Pass, the Maine vote demonstrates the challenges of building transmission lines needed to carry carbon-free electricity.

“It’s hard not to view last night’s vote as another demonstration that, even with permits in hand and construction underway, a project can face fatal consequences,” Fox said.

Fox said this is especially true in small, densely populated states – such as Massachusetts – with ambitious targets to phase out fossil fuels. The vote in Maine may force Massachusetts and the utilities that signed power contracts with NECEC to make a tough decision, he said.

They may be compelled at some point to cancel the NECEC contract, he said, in favor of a more costly Hydro-Quebec hookup through Vermont. Or they could try to reach renewable energy targets through offshore wind, with contracts they now have for projects off the Massachusetts coast. But those ventures also face opposition from fishing interests, among others.

“Offshore wind is not without headwinds,” Fox said, “notwithstanding the Biden administration’s support for the industry.”

Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said it was considering its next steps.

“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,” said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the office.

OUTCOME REACHES QUEBEC

In Canada, officials in Quebec were taking stock of the Maine vote.

In a tweet just before midnight Tuesday, Quebec Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonatan Julien said, “We will take note of the results of the referendum in Maine (and) Hydro-Quebec will analyze them.”

He also referred to a separate plan for Hydro-Quebec to send power to New York City via the Hudson River, saying the province would continue to work to make Quebec a leader in cutting carbon emissions in the American Northeast.

To connect to the New England grid through the NECEC project, Hydro-Quebec needs to build the 62-mile Appalaches-Maine Interconnection, roughly from Thetford Mines to the Maine border. The project won Canadian permit approvals in May, over the objections of First Nations indigenous tribes.

Despite that, construction has begun, according to Lynn St-Laurent, Hydro-Quebec’s public affairs spokesperson.

“We are now doing the groundwork, essentially access roads and tree-clearing,” she told the Press Herald on Wednesday.

In a follow-up statement, St-Laurent called the project a “regional collaborative effort towards the climate challenge” and part of the provincial utility’s long-term vision.

“Hydro-Quebec will take the necessary actions to have its rights recognized and ensure the continued construction of the NECEC project,” she said, “which will make a significant contribution to the fight against climate change.”

Hydro-Quebec was a major contributor to NECEC’s campaign to oppose Question 1, spending more than $18 million.

NECEC EXPLAINED

NECEC is a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, enough energy to run roughly 1 million homes. It would carry energy from Quebec to an alternate-current converter station in Lewiston, where it would enter the New England electric grid. It’s being built largely for the benefit of Massachusetts electric customers, who will pay the $1 billion cost.

The 145-mile route is on land owned or controlled by CMP, except for a one-mile patch through Maine public lands near The Forks. Two-thirds of the route follows existing CMP power line corridors, some of which are being widened up to 75 feet to accommodate another set of poles.

A 53-mile stretch between The Forks and the Quebec border bisects undeveloped commercial forest. The area has been logged for generations but has high-value qualities for wildlife, recreation and biodiversity. Permits require the power corridor in this section to be no more than 54 feet wide. Fewer than 1,000 acres are being cleared in total for the project.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.