State regulators Friday suspended hearings on Central Maine Power's (CMP) proposal to build a 145-mile high-voltage transmission line in western Maine. The move comes after project opponents complained that CMP had overwhelmed them with a last-minute "document dump" too big to wade through within the allotted time.
The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) staff agreed that the current schedule did not allow enough time to review important documents, and cancelled two upcoming hearings.
The transmission line, ostensibly, would carry low-polluting hydro-electricity from Hydro Quebec's dam system in Canada through Maine to customers in Massachusetts, but net pollution reductions are a disputed point in the case.
John Flumerfelt is a spokesperson for the Calpine Corporation, which operates a natural gas electricity plant in Westbrook, whose business could take a hit if the CMP projects is approved. He says some of the recently uncovered documents go to internal CMP discussions about how and whether the project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"To the extent that there's information that they have been reluctant to provide, even to their own regulatory commission, that contradicts their case, that could be a very big deal and could change the outcome,” Flumerfelt says. “Secondly, this is probably a very significant delay if it opens up opportunities for additional testimony and cross-examination of different witnesses."
PUC staff called for a new, extended schedule that would give the parties time to examine and respond to the new documents.
CMP spokesperson John Carroll says that while the delay may stretch out the timetable for a Commission decision on the transmission proposal, it will not delay the project itself, which is scheduled to go online in 2022. And he dismissed Flumerfelt's views.
"We strongly disagree with the characterization of this information,” Carroll says. “Calpine is a fossil-fuel generator who stands to lose a lot of money when consumers stand to benefit from this project, and I think they would do or say almost anything they could to protect their self-interest, and that's what you hear in those comments."
Regulators had tentatively planned to decide the case by the end of the December. If, as seems likely now, the decision is delayed until next year, that would coincide with the installation of a new governor in the Blaine House. Incumbent Paul LePage has been a supporter of the CMP project, but all four candidates in the race, including Republican Shawn Moody and Democrat Janet Mills, have voiced skepticism about whether it would benefit Mainers.
Barry Hobbins, the state's public advocate, says the election could create an entirely new political context for decisions on the CMP project.
"There could be a change in leadership, both in the executive branch, a new Legislature, or, for that matter, there could be new members of the Public Utilities Commission if administrations change."
The Commission has scheduled a new procedural conference in the case, on Halloween.
Updated 5:15 p.m. Oct. 26