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    The Maine Idea: On power corridor, 'the law's delay' is getting out of hand


    October 6, 2022 - Douglas Rooks

     

      It's going to be a tough winter. Maine's average residential electricity rates have soared to 22 cents a kilowatt – equal to Massachusetts's, which used to be higher – and a 47% increase over a year ago.

      If you heat with oil, it's even more alarming – though gasoline prices have come down, heating oil remains stubbornly high, at $4.40 a gallon, up from $2.73 last year, a 62% increase.

      Of course, it could be worse. Liz Truss, in office just four weeks, could become Britain's fourth consecutive Conservative prime minister in six years to be driven from office, in part for an incredible plan to cut taxes on the wealthy, since rescinded, that drove her approval ratings down 30 points.

      But the larger British issue is sky-high energy prices, contributing to 11% inflation – here, it's just over 8% – amid shortages following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

      Back home, with powerful hurricanes like Ian, relentless flooding in some regions, drought in others, you'd think we'd be doing everything possible to mitigate climate change. But we aren't.

      In late August, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) handed down a puzzling ruling that essentially found unconstitutional the referendum that shut down the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) line in November 2021 but didn't quite say that.

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      Instead, it remanded the issue of "vested rights" for the builder, the parent company of Central Maine Power, Avangrid, back to the Business Court for further fact-finding; it's a division of the Superior Court – created, ironically, to expedite resolution of commercial disputes.

      Another month later, the judge, Michael Duddy, has scheduled briefs and hearings, culminating in a trial in April – another six months from now. The SJC itself took more than nine months to issue its equivocal decision. Now, with the usual post-trial delays and reference back to the SJC, it will take at least two years even to find out if the original referendum was legitimate.

      And by that time, we may be voting on another referendum or two spawned by the same discontent against CMP and Versant, the former Bangor Hydro, that powered the successful anti-NECEC referendum.

      The judiciary's glacial pace suggests time is of no importance, there's no urgency to settling the issues, and that we can afford to wait.

      Again, we can't. The frightening scale of global warming as it unfolds in "real time" is undeniable to anyone who faces the fact squarely.

      And the NECEC project is the single fastest, largest way to do something about global warming in New England. At a stroke, it would replace 1,200 megawatts of largely fossil fuel burning in the region-wide grid.

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      The price of natural gas – accounting for more than half New England's electricity – would drop, and we'd emit far less carbon dioxide and methane. Hydroelectricity, what Quebec would be sending, is an excellent complement to enhanced solar and wind generation.

      Since it can be produced "on demand" to fill gaps in grid production, it's useful for both seasonal and daily electric loads, since no one, obviously, wants to contemplate the blackouts and brownouts that would otherwise occur.

      In a climate sense, NECEC had everything going for it except a decent political campaign. Instead of emphasizing the New England-wide and Maine-specific benefits, the project's promoters got bogged down in a confusing set of charges and counter-charges.

      Now, the Superior Court is supposed to write the next chapter. It's not hard to discern the plot.

      As the SJC itself pointed out, Avangrid has already cleared 124 miles of corridor, and spent $450 million, about 45% of the projected total. It doesn't seem that there will be any evidence concerning vested rights to suggest the answer is anything but "yes."

      Instead, the project's original permit allowing 18-month placement of timber mats is expiring, forcing Avangrid to take them up. It will, of course, have to put them down again if construction permits are restored.

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      No one comes out smelling like a rose. The referendum's proponents, despite having their proposal removed from the ballot in 2020, came back with another one to halt a fully-permitted project after construction had begun – knowing there was a high probability it was unconstitutional.

      CMP and Hydro Quebec conducted a meandering and fruitless defense that may have lost more votes than it gained.

      And now the Maine judicial system is giving new meaning to Hamlet's invidious reference to "the law's delay."

      The people and environment of Maine, New England – and the planet, for that matter – are the losers. It will only be much later that we know how large a loss that is.

      Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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