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Maine anti-power line initiative is unconstitutional, suit claims

An electric transmission line crossing Maine would be effectively blocked by an initiative approved by Maine voters Tuesday. The initiative is unconstitutional, the line’s backer claims in Wednesday’s suit.

(CN) — An energy company building a $1 billion electric transmission line from Canada to Massachusetts that crosses Maine filed suit in Maine state court Wednesday calling unconstitutional a citizen initiative passed by Maine voters Tuesday that would block the project.

The ballot initiative approved by Maine voters Tuesday was prompted by a project intended to transmit electricity generated from Canadian hydropower dams to residents in Massachusetts. The project backer says the power lines would be New England’s largest investment of renewable energy, flooding the region with low-cost energy.

Construction began on the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission line corridor in early 2021 and approximately 124 miles of the transmission corridor have been cleared and over 120 structures have been installed, according to NECEC.

Although the project has been approved by Maine regulatory agencies and is well under way, opponents have sought to block the transmission line, first through a successful voter initiative in 2020, which was struck down in court as unconstitutional, and a second initiative approved Tuesday.

“Despite the granting of permits for the project, the environmental and economic benefits of the project, and the substantial progress in transmission line construction, opponents of the project — funded by electric generators in New England who burn fossil fuels — have now successfully pursued passage of legislation via direct initiative specifically targeted at the Project that would, if enforced, retroactively ban the completion and operation” of the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line corridor, project backer Avangrid Networks Inc. said in a statement Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed in Maine Superior Court in Cumberland County, names as defendants the Bureau of Parks and Lands, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; the Maine Public Utilities Commission; and the Maine Senate and House of Representatives, all of which are required to enact and enforce provisions of the citizen initiative.

While the initiative approved Tuesday does not explicitly name the NECEC project, it would effectively block the project by requiring retroactive state approval for any lease of public reserved land by the state for transmission lines. The initiative requires retroactive approval of any transmission lines longer than 50 miles by a two-thirds vote of all members of each house of the Maine Legislature.

Avangrid Networks’ complaint seeks a declaratory order that the initiative would unconstitutionally deprive NECEC of the ability to complete the previously approved project, and that it violates the Maine Constitution’s separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. The complaint seeks an injunction barring retroactive enforcement of the initiative.

Pete Didisheim, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a statement released shortly after the election was called Tuesday that voters spoke in a landslide of opposition to the project, despite Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec spending $72 million to advocate for it.

Didisheim said the ongoing construction of the transmission line should stop, in accordance with the will of the voters, either voluntarily or though the Department of Environmental protection suspending the project’s permit.

“We also call on Massachusetts to honor this electoral outcome by selecting an alternative option for meeting its climate goals without imposing significant environmental harm on another New England state,” Didisheim said.

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