Shortly after the New England Clean Energy Connect project to bring Quebec hydropower to New England received its final major permit Friday, expecting to begin construction on the $950 million transmission line soon, a federal appeals court hit the brakes on the most controversial part of the line.
A federal appeals court called a halt to some work pending further review of a legal case brought by foes of the hydropower transmission line through western Maine.
The court granted a temporary injunction sought by opponents ordering the company to stop work on the entirely new section of the proposed line until judges can review a legal dispute related to it. That effectively stopped work on that part of the corridor until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit takes further action.
Thorn Dickinson, who heads the project, said Friday that the court ruling adds a new hurdle, but “this project has been through a number of challenges” already.
Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power, said the project secured a needed permit from the U.S. Department of Energy, allowing it to begin moving forward.
“We are pleased to be able to start construction,” Avangrid President Robert Kump said in a prepared statement.
Dickinson said 80 people have already been hired to start work on the corridor preparations and there should be 140 on the job by the end of the month. Ultimately, the initial clearing of the corridor will likely involve about 325 workers, the company has said.
A contractor is slated to begin building the electrical transmission towers themselves after the legal issues are in the past and the corridor cleared. Dickinson said that is likely to start in a few months.
The project includes a 145-mile line in Maine that has 53 miles through a new corridor in Western Maine before joining up with one that runs from a Kennebec River dam to Lewiston.
The company said the completed line “will be New England’s largest source of renewable energy, representing a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels while simultaneously lowering energy costs in Maine and New England.”
Opponents, who are still fighting to block the project, say it will harm the environment and won’t deliver the climate benefits it promises.
A federal lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club charges the additional corridor “will create a new, permanent scar on the landscape of Maine’s Western Mountains Region and irreparably damage and fragment numerous aquatic resources and important wildlife habitat.”
The groups are challenging the federal review process for the project, insisting it lacked transparency and completeness.
The appellate court is reviewing a district judge’s refusal to issue an injunction to stop work on the project.
It laid out a timeline Friday that appears to give 25 days for legal briefs to be filed by both sides. If that holds, it will be at least mid-February before the court is likely to take any action.
Dickinson, president and chief executive officer of NECEC, said the company will be meeting with lawyers and others soon to figure out what the decision means for its timetable.
He said, though, he doesn’t anticipate any major problems.
Dickinson said people are beginning to see tangible benefits from the project, including people working and spending money in Western Maine. He hopes that it will cause them to “take another look” at what it’s all about and recognize that in addition to economic pluses, the finished line will help shift the region away from fossil fuels, helping with the climate crisis.
The power line corridor will connect Hydro-Quebec to New England’s regional energy grid, providing up to 1,200 megawatts of hydropower that will arrive at a new converter station in Lewiston before flowing into existing lines.
The power is targeted for Massachusetts, where consumers are paying for the project, but the electrical grid isn’t state specific, so the electricity will wind up benefiting the entire region.
Maine is slated to receive about $250 million worth of direct benefits, from cheaper energy to fiber optic connections for communities along the corridor.
BY STEVE COLLINS SUN JOURNAL