Portland Press Herald
Environmental groups are contesting a permit for the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project, but CMP says even a six-month delay will cost $31 million.
A six-month delay in bringing the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect online would cost Central Maine Power an additional $31 million, while a one-year delay would raise that figure to $37 million, the company has revealed in court filings.
Powerline contractors had planned to begin clearing work as early as Dec. 4. CMP now says forest clearing for its transmission corridor in western Maine has been put off until at least Dec. 18. But it says it needs to begin by early January to meet contract obligations, be off the ground before the spring thaw, and protect vulnerable wildlife.
The NECEC project already has been pushed from a planned in-service date of Dec. 13, 2022, to May 31, 2023, CMP notes. Construction delays will require CMP to pay waiting contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars a week, money that can’t be passed along to Massachusetts utility customers or CMP’s partner, Hydro-Quebec.
These and other glimpses into CMP’s imperative to start work as soon as possible on the controversial, $1 billion project are contained in testimony filed in U.S. District Court, where a judge Wednesday heard arguments from opponents trying to stop construction pending a deeper environmental review.
CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, announced on Nov. 4 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had granted its approval for the project.
But on Nov. 12, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Sierra Club Maine filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent work from starting. They want Judge Lance E. Walker to delay any tree clearing until the court can fully consider a lawsuit filed by the three groups challenging the Corps for what they allege was a flawed and inadequate environmental review of a project that will cause irreparable harm.
Following a hearing that lasted more than three hours, Judge Walker said he would decide whether to grant the request by mid-December.
The NECEC project would transmit 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity from Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec to the New England grid, and would be funded by Massachusetts ratepayers. The 145-mile-long transmission corridor would cut through about 53 miles of mostly-commercial forest owned or controlled by CMP in western Maine before following existing transmission corridors.
That 53-mile stretch is where work is set to start, although NECEC says the exact location is being withheld for safety and security reasons.
“It is not in the best interests of Maine people for CMP to start work prematurely on what is one of the most consequential and controversial projects in recent history,” the groups said last month in a statement. “The federal review of this project has been conducted behind closed doors and has failed to properly consider the long-lasting impact the transmission line will have on the woods, waters, wildlife and recreational economy of western Maine.”
Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of project developer NECEC Transmission LLC, said the legal maneuver is merely another attempt by opponents aligned with out-of-state fossil fuel companies to delay the project. He noted that all regulatory agencies to date have approved it.
The project already has received permits from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The last major permit needed is a presidential permit, to allow the transmission line to cross the Canadian border. The U.S. Department of Energy issues presidential permits, and that agency is conducting its own review.
Developer: Delays would have domino effect
In a filing on Nov. 25, Dickinson expanded on the impacts of further delay.
Transmission projects require careful construction sequencing, he said, with time-of-year restrictions that account for weather, environmental regulations and other factors. Based on the Army Corps approval, CMP told its clearing contractor, Northern Clearing Inc., to get ready to prepare the corridor this winter, starting as early as Dec. 4. The company already has the equipment ready and has hired dozens of loggers, machine operators and other crew.
The goal is to perform sufficient clearing so Cianbro Corp. and Irby Construction, the transmission line contractors, can start erecting poles in May. Other early work will involve creating access roads and laying down wooden matts to prevent erosion.
But Dickinson noted that clearing activity is restricted during mud season, and prohibited in June and July, to mitigate the impact on a federally-threatened bat species.
At the same time, Cianbro and Hitachi ABB Power Grids are set to start site development work on a massive DC to AC current converter station in Lewiston.
“An injunction delaying the start of this construction work will have significant consequences on NECEC and CMP,” Dickinson said.
For instance, under Northern’s contract, it has to be paid $696,000 a week for any delay to cover equipment costs, as well as $392,000 if it has to lay off and then rehire workers.
A two-month delay, therefore, could cost the company $6 million more in clearing costs, Dickinson said.
Similar delay costs around the converter station could add $200,000 a week, he said.
Beyond that, clearing delays would trigger a chain reaction in changing contract timeframes for other elements of the project. He noted 85 percent of the project already has been committed or contracted.
Army Corps jurisdiction is limited
For its part, the Army Corps, represented by an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, noted that the agency’s jurisdiction involved only 1.9 percent of the project’s total acreage dealing with filling federal waters.
“The federal action here is the Corps permit,” the department said, “not the transmission line project as a whole.”
During the hearing, the lawyer for the conservation groups called two witnesses who testified that, in their opinions, the project would destroy the unbroken view of lakes, woods and distant hills from mountain summits, as well as an unfragmented forest unique in the eastern United States. For these reasons, they said, the project would cause irreparable harm, a legal term with a definition that’s in dispute in the case.
But the Army Corps attorney countered that the conservation groups were using an incorrect standard. The agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over the entire project. That’s what state agencies reviewed. The Corps only weighed in on fill placed in federal waters.
Beyond the challenges to the Army Corps permit, the project still faces hurdles, including from some towns along the corridor route and from a citizen referendum campaign that’s collecting signatures for a November 2021 vote to require legislative approval for high-voltage power lines.