This week, the public will have another opportunity to learn about and comment on Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) project, a proposed 145-mile transmission line that would carry hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts. On December 5, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—the federal agency responsible for wetland and waterway regulation and permitting—will hold a public hearing in Lewiston on Central Maine Power’s (CMP) permit request for its proposed NECEC project. The hearing presents another opportunity for Maine Audubon and the public to share their concerns about the proposed transmission line.
As we look ahead to final permitting decisions on the part of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Land Use Planning Commission , and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others, as early as this winter, Maine Audubon continues to have significant reservations about the proposed project. We remain very concerned that NECEC, despite changes since CMP originally proposed the project, does not adequately address impacts to wildlife habitat. We also continue to question whether NECEC would offer the applicant’s claimed climate benefits.
In Maine Audubon’s April 4, 2019, comments to the DEP, we shared our view that CMP has not adequately avoided, minimized, and compensated for NECEC’s impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat. Prior to the DEP’s public hearing, we were encouraged that CMP had updated the proposal to include larger buffers with higher vegetation around streams where endangered species were present. More recently, CMP has re-routed the proposed transmission line to avoid a remote pond near the Canadian border. These are both encouraging steps in the right direction, but are far from sufficient to account for the project’s direct and cumulative impacts (such as habitat fragmentation) to wildlife.
In a May 14, 2018, statement, we said that NECEC’s wildlife impacts—those that remain after concerted effort to avoid, minimize, and finally compensate for unavoidable impacts—must be balanced by clear evidence that the project will result in a net reduction of greenhouse emissions. We applaud Hydro-Quebec (whose energy would flow through the proposed line) for increasing their presence in Maine by meeting with stakeholders and engaging with Maine-based media, but cannot square their assertions that this project will provide “new” renewable energy with those of the Massachusetts’ Attorney General, who has stated that the contract between Massachusetts and Hydro-Quebec does not require new renewable energy—i.e., it does not guarantee a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, Maine Audubon continues to seek clear, verifiable evidence of the project’s climate benefits.
The Army Corps hearing is another important step in the review process where we can reiterate critiques of the project that are closest to Maine Audubon’s heart: NECEC, as proposed, does not adequately minimize or compensate for impacts to Maine’s aquatic and other natural resources. For example, consistent with our comments to the DEP, we recommend that there be a 100’ vegetative buffer for all streams in order to support Maine’s unique brook trout population and a requirement that refueling not be allowed near wetlands. We also recommend that the compensation rate for Significant Wildlife Habitat and Inland Wading Bird and Waterfowl Habitat be increased to at least 100 percent of the 8:1 compensation rate ratios. Both of these recommendations, as well as others, are squarely within the Army Corps jurisdiction.
Renewable energy development can co-exist with natural resource and wildlife habitat conservation. Last month, Maine Audubon released a report detailing precisely how Maine can expand renewable energy development while also conserving wildlife and habitat. It is not an impossible tradeoff. If renewable energy projects indeed have significant, verifiable climate benefits, such projects must avoid and minimize on-the-ground impacts wherever possible and properly compensate for those that truly cannot be avoided. With the NECEC project, CMP and Maine and federal regulators have both an opportunity and a responsibility to set a high bar for this and future large-scale renewable energy projects in Maine.