Power corridor referendum is unconstitutional, court says

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A referendum aimed at overturning approval of a $1 billion hydropower transmission corridor is unconstitutional, and should be removed from the November ballot, the state supreme court ruled Thursday.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the referendum "fails to meet the constitutional requirement for inclusion on the ballot.”

The parent company of Central Maine Power sued over the referendum that aimed to overturn decisions by three state agencies that approved the 145-mile (233-kilometer) utility transmission line in western Maine.

Avangrid Networks, which is part of Spanish utility Iberdrola, argued that the Maine Constitution links referendums to legislative acts, not agency decisions. It also said the referendum violated the separate of powers.

Sandi Howard from “No CMP Corridor” accused the supreme court of siding with “foreign corporations over the people of Maine.” Opponents of the project are weighing their legal options, she said.

But Thorn Dickinson, president of the New England Clean Energy Connect, called the ruling “a victory for the state of Maine and our future, both environmentally and economically.”

“The clean energy corridor makes Maine a leader in the efforts to address the climate crisis, removing millions of metric tons of carbon from our air annually,” he said in a statement.

The New England Clean Energy Connect, which would serve as a conduit for up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower, already has been approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Land Use Planning Commission and Maine Public Utilities Commission.

But opponents submitted enough petitions — more than 63,000 — for the matter to appear on the November ballot.

The state supreme court previously sided with project opponents in agreeing that the threshold of petitions was met. But Avangrid filed a new lawsuit raising constitutional issues.

The project calls for construction of a high-voltage power line from Mount Beattie Township on the Canadian border to the regional power grid in Lewiston, Maine. Most of the project would follow existing utility corridors, but a new path would have to be cut through 53 miles (85 kilometers) of wilderness.

The project was proposed by the state of Massachusetts to meet its clean energy goals. It would be fully funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, but the entire region would benefit, supporters say.

Hydro Quebec would supply the energy that supporters say would reduce carbon pollution and stabilize utility rates.

Critics say the environmental benefits are overstated and that the project would spoil part of Maine’s North Woods. They also contend the flood of electricity could stymie smaller renewable energy projects in Maine.

The state supreme court sent the case back to a Superior Court judge, who will issue a declaratory judgement.

The supreme court did not issue an injunction requiring Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to remove the referendum from the ballot because Dunlap already agreed to do so if the court ruled it to be unconstitutional. Dunlap's spokeswoman confirmed his intentions Thursday.

Pete Didisheim from the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the project, said appeals of previous agency approvals are underway. He also noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to weigh in.

“This destructive transmission line proposal is far from a done deal," said Didisheim, NRCM's advocacy director.