Just days after Maine’s high court allowed a November referendum aimed at defeating Central Maine Power Co.’s proposed hydropower project onto the ballot, CMP’s parent company has fought back with a lawsuit challenging the referendum’s constitutionality.
Avangrid Networks filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Cumberland County against Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap arguing that the proposed referendum has two constitutional flaws. The secretary of state is responsible for preparing the November general election ballot.
One flaw is that the referendum exceeds the legislative power provided to the people under the Maine Constitution, according to the lawsuit. The second is that the referendum violates the separation of powers provision of the state’s constitution.
“If this referendum is put on the ballot, any decision by a court or agency could be arbitrarily overturned after the fact,” said Thorn Dickinson, CEO and president of NECEC Transmission LLC, the CMP spinoff company that will run the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect project. “It will create a dangerous precedent that allows special interests to manipulate voters in overturning decisions made by local and state regulators and Maine courts. This creates uncertainty and threatens individual rights of fairness under the law.”
Kristin Muszynski, a spokesperson for Dunlap, said the secretary of state’s office does not comment on pending litigation.
The controversial $1 billion project, which will bring hydropower from Canada through western Maine, already has approval from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Land Use Planning Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection. It still needs approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ISO New England and the U.S. Department of Energy. ISO New England is the organization that runs the region’s electric grid.
Environmental groups have protested the project, saying it does not benefit Mainers enough, could damage the environment and will not provide the environmental benefits that CMP has claimed.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, a vocal opponent of the CMP project, countered Avangrid’s claims about the legality of the referendum.
“The Maine constitution clearly gives the people of Maine the right of referendum,” said Sue Ely, a clean energy attorney with the council. “The precedent we’re concerned about is one in which foreign-owned corporations, such as Hydro-Quebec and Central Maine Power, can spend unlimited amounts of money in an attempt to block Maine people from interfering with their profits.”
Hydro-Quebec is CMP’s partner on the project, and would supply the power that would flow through the new transmission corridor to the New England electric grid.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Energy Consumer’s Group supported the lawsuit.
“When the referendum process is used to overturn a permitting decision and moves the goal posts at the end of that process, we risk critical investments in Maine,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “This is not only an improper use of the referendum process, it is one that we cannot sit on the sidelines and let stand.”