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Maine environmental regulators approve new energy corridor

Maine Hydro

A $1 billion utility transmission project that would serve as a conduit for up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to flow into the New England power grid won approval from state environmental regulators Monday.

The permit issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection requires Central Maine Power to reduce the width of a new path through wilderness and to permanently conserve 40,000 acres to offset the environmental impact. It also requires nearly $1.9 million for culverts and a prohibition on herbicides.

Two leading environmental groups offered starkly different views on the project, dubbed the New England Clean Energy Connect.

Phelps Turner, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the Canadian hydropower will help the region “retire dirty fossil fuel plants in the coming years, which is a win for our health and our climate.”

“Building new ways to deliver low-carbon energy to our region is a critical piece of tackling the climate crisis,” he said.

But Sue Ely, staff attorney from the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the project would bring “no real reduction in global carbon pollution” while inflicting irreparable harm on Maine’s North Woods and local communities.

The project calls for building a high-voltage power line from Mount Beattie Township on the Canadian border to the regional power grid in Lewiston, Maine. Most of the 145-mile (233-kilometer) project would follow existing utility corridors, but a new path would have to be cut through a 53-mile (85-kilometer) swath of wilderness owned by Central Maine Power in western Maine.

Quebec-Hydro would supply the energy for the project. Supporters say the amount of carbon that would be removed from the atmosphere by the project would be the equivalent of more than 700,000 vehicles.

The Department of Environmental Protection’s decision leaves only two hurdles to the New England Clean Energy Connect — a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers and a statewide referendum in November.

Maine’s highest court last week cleared the way for what’s expected to be a costly referendum campaign when it affirmed the secretary of state’s certification of petitions that had been called into question.

Backers of the corridor contended Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap misinterpreted state law when he accepted petitions notarized by people who also performed other work for groups that were collecting signatures.

But the court unanimously rejected that argument last week.

Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of NECEC Transmission LLC, said Monday that the DEP permit was the culmination of a rigorous process that began more than two years ago. He said he looks forward to working with the DEP commissioner and staff to meet the conditions outlined in the permit.

But Sandi Howard, a leading opponent of the project, said, “Yet another state regulator has been bamboozled by CMP.”

The project was proposed by the state of Massachusetts to meet its clean energy goals and it would be fully funded by Massachusetts ratepayers. But the entire region would see benefits, including stabilized electric rates, supporters said.

The Maine project was embraced by Massachusetts officials after New Hampshire regulators pulled the plug on the controversial Northern Pass.

The Maine Land Use Planning Commission and Public Utilities Commission already have issued their own respective permits for the project.