On August 13, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a judgment regarding a referendum planned for November which would have allowed Maine residents to vote on and end the $1 billion Central Maine Power (CMP) corridor project. In its decision, the Maine Supreme Court ordered a lower court to issue an order for the removal of the question from upcoming election ballots. The decision clears the way for the construction of the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), the official name of this energy corridor.
The NECEC is an energy-supply line that will run from Quebec in Canada to Massachusetts in the United States, with a 53-mile stretch covering the North Woods in Maine. This deal has come about as a partnership between CMP and Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian energy company harnessing hydro power in Quebec. The proposed energy corridor is being paid for by Massachusetts, whose residents will have access to Canadian hydropower after the completion of this project.
Environmental protection lobbies such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine had been mobilizing against the construction of the NECEC. The campaign for this referendum has been the most expensive of its kind in the history of Maine. This movement was also able to gather the support of some influential policymakers such as Rep. a co-chair of Maine’s Energy, Utilities and Technology committee. Residents and legislators opposed to the CMP corridor argue that more regulation is needed for such projects that have the potential to harm Mainers and the state’s scenic beauty.
Central Maine Power also utilized throughout the campaign the assistance of political committees such as Clean Energy Matters, which is funded by CMP and spent close to $17 million opposing the referendum. According to Clean Energy Matters, the NECEC will bring to Maine millions of dollars in investment. This investment will go toward expanding rural broadband, conserving the natural resources of Maine, controlling carbon emissions and other purposes that the organization claims will be beneficial for Maine residents.
In opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other groups call it a “bad deal”. The reasons cited by the council and others are primarily environmental. These groups anticipate massive irreparable damage to the forest through which the 145-mile transmission line will be constructed. Other reasons that environmental groups refer to stem from their claims that carbon emissions will not be reduced significantly, and that the local energy industry will be jeopardized.
It is believed that almost 90% of all Mainers are aware of the project, with 54% considering the information about the NECEC to be negative. About 65% to 70% Mainers oppose the construction of the CMP corridor and only about 15% are in support. While public opinion about the CMP corridor seems to be negative, Central Maine Power is optimistic about the project’s ability to lower energy costs and create local jobs.
In it’s ruling, the high court stated:
“By statute, the [Public Utility] Commission’s adjudicatory decisions may then be appealed directly to the Law Court ‘in the same manner as an appeal taken from a judgement of the Superior Court in a civil action’. The Commission’s adjudicatory decisions therefore are subject to judicial – not legislative – review. The initiative at issue here is not legislative in nature because its purpose and effect is to dictate the Commission’s exercise of it’s quasi-judicial executive-agency function in a particular proceeding. The resolve would interfere with and vitiate the Commission’s fact-finding and adjudicatory function – and executive power conferred on the Commission by the Legislature. Although the Legislature may properly constrain the Commission in its legislative functions and may alter the authority conferred on the Commission, the Legislature would exceed its legislative powers if it were to require the Commission to vacate and reverse a particular administrative decision the Commission made.”
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court adjudicated that while the voters have the option of a referendum to create laws directly, this provision cannot be used to overturn previous executive decisions made by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. This judgment by the highest court in Maine will limit the ways in which Mainers can utilize the ballot initiative process for future referendums.