Last-Minute Approval of a Controversial Transmission Line Through Maine Wilderness
In Trump’s last days of office, his minions approved a presidential permit for a $1 billion energy project. The world’s third-largest utility benefits from what erroneously is portrayed as a clean energy project to bring electricity from Canada to Massachusetts.
UPDATE: The Biden White House advised DCReport on Feb. 11 that this permit “is one of the policies under review by President Biden’s day 1 executive order to review certain climate policies from the Trump admin.”
Environmental opponents, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Council of Maine, say it’s actually “greenwashing.” The term was coined to describe projects and products marketed as environmentally friendly when they aren’t.
“There is zero reliable evidence that the project would result in an actual, verifiable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Sue Ely, an attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “That’s right. Zero.”
A federal judge issued a temporary injunction on Jan. 15, the day after Team Trump granted the presidential permit. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club are in court appealing another permit that was issued for the project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The presidential permit may be modified or revoked by the president, now Joe Biden, without notice, or by the Department of Energy, after notice. Steven Winberg, Trump’s acting undersecretary of energy, signed the permit. It was awarded to NECEC Transmission LLC, a new company formed by AVANGRID.
Massachusetts utilities signed 20-year contracts in 2018 to buy 9.45 terawatt-hours a year from Hydro-Québec, Canada’s largest utility. Eric Martel, then the CEO of Hydro-Québec, counted on electricity exports such as these to double company revenues by 2030 to about $27 billion.
“Without exports, our profits are in trouble,” Martel said in 2018.
The contracts let Hydro-Québec maximize profits, according to an analysis by Energyzt Advisors LLC for environmental groups. Hydro-Québec could buy low from providers that could include coal from New Brunswick or natural gas from New York to be able to hoard the water behind its 27 reservoirs. The utility could use that water to produce the electricity it sells to Massachusetts as “clean” hydropower.
The net result actually can be higher emissions of greenhouse gases. Energyzt estimated that the project could raise total emissions by the equivalent of 80,000 cars a year.
NECEC Transmission LLC plans to build about 53 miles of the 171.4 miles in transmission lines from the Québec border to Lewiston, Maine. The lines would cross 200 rivers, streams and brooks through wilderness in western Maine.
Animals such as the American marten and the threatened Canada lynx live in forests on the route. Wild native brook trout are in streams.
The Maine project illustrates how the Trump administration swung a regulatory axe with no regard for the environment instead of carefully pruning pathways through forested lands. Even the Trump EPA, which proved itself no reliable protector of the environment, raised questions about the project.
Beth Alafat, the EPA’s acting chief of the wetlands protection unit, wrote that the Corps should consider putting the transmission lines underground along existing roads or railway corridors.
Twenty-five Maine towns along the corridor voted against the project or rescinded their previous support. New Hampshire blocked an attempt to route the project through that state.
The Corps found the project would have no significant impact and issued a permit. The Corps, however, did not prepare a full environmental study for the proposed path through Maine and did not seek public comment on most of the documents it did prepare.