The state's high court ruled Tuesday that a referendum blocking the transmission line would be unconstitutional if a lower court determines the project was already too far along at the time of the vote.
In a partial and tentative victory for the developers of a stalled New England power corridor, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that a voter-approved law blocking the project would be unconstitutional if enough work had already been completed.
Now it will be up to a lower court judge to determine if the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line had established so-called vested rights before the statewide referendum was held.
The ruling, which is complicated and still being reviewed by the parties, will have the effect of prolonging the question of whether the $1 billion transmission project will be completed and when. Avangrid Networks, the parent company of Central Maine Power, is fighting to develop the 145-mile corridor to carry electricity from Quebec to Massachusetts.
The justices wrote:
“We conclude that section 6 of the Initiative, as applied retroactively to the (Public Utilities Commission permit), would infringe on NECEC’s constitutionally protected vested rights if NECEC can demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it engaged in substantial construction of the project in good-faith reliance on the authority granted by the permit before Maine voters approved the initiated bill by public referendum.”
It sent the case back to the Business and Consumer Court nearly 10 months after Maine voters endorsed a law aimed at preventing the $1 billion transmission line from moving ahead.
The prospects of another protracted legal fight is a mixed blessing for both NECEC and its adversaries.
Tuesday’s decision keeps the project alive, good news for the developers. But the project is being paid for by Massachusetts utilities and their customers, part of a massive effort to shift the state to clean energy to fight climate change. Years of delay already have cost NECEC millions of dollars in contract extensions. It’s not clear how long those accommodations will continue.
“We’re going to have another year in court,” predicted Tom Saviello, the former Maine lawmaker who led the referendum campaign. “This is another year delay at a minimum before this is sorted out. At what point does Mass say, ‘We can’t wait another year?’ “
For that reason, Saviello said, he wasn’t disappointed in the Supreme Court ruling. Sorting out the legal issues flagged by the court will take time, he suggested, and time is on the side of opponents.
But NECEC’s parent company, Avangrid, said in a statement that it was pleased with the outcome. It didn’t address the nuances of the decision, but instead framed it as another step in its fight to bring clean energy to the market and overcome opposition from fossil fuel interests.
“This unanimous decision by the Law Court is a victory for clean energy expansion, transmission development, and decarbonization efforts in Maine, New England and across the country,” the company said.
It also reiterated what it sees as the project’s benefits for the state and region, such as hundreds of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and lower energy costs.
“We are pleased with this outcome as we move Maine to a cleaner energy future,” Avangrid concluded.
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