Since 2018, Maine Audubon has engaged with Central Maine Power’s (CMP) New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) project, sharing our concerns with CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, and providing recommendations for avoiding, minimizing, and compensating for the project’s impacts on wildlife and habitats, as well as providing extensive public comment to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). From the beginning, our focus and concerns have been clear: NECEC, as proposed, would cause tremendous harm to wildlife, due to the unprecedented scope of the project’s permanent and temporary impacts to largely unfragmented, nationally and internationally significant forested wildlife habitat. If the project were permitted, significant mitigation and compensation measures would have to be taken to reduce those impacts.
The proposed high-voltage, above-ground transmission corridor would adversely impact hundreds of vernal pools used by Wood Frogs and Spotted and Blue-spotted Salamanders, which are an important part of the food chain for many Maine forests; hundreds of acres of wetlands that are home to tree-cavity nesting ducks such as Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, and long-legged wading birds such as Great Blue Herons; hundreds of coldwater streams that harbor the last, best population of wild brook trout in the United States; thousands of acres of interior forest that is used by over 90 species of breeding birds as their “baby bird factory”; and expansive unfragmented forest where mammals like American Marten, River Otter, Bobcat, Black Bear, and Canada Lynx travel extensively to find the food, water, mates, and dens they need to survive.
On May 11, 2020, the DEP approved NECEC with conditions. Prior to the approval, Maine Audubon staff provided extensive public comment, focusing on the proposed project’s impacts on wildlife and habitat. We were encouraged that the DEP’s draft order, issued in early March 2020, acknowledged the project’s unprecedented natural resource impacts and offered significant conditions aimed at minimizing and compensating for those impacts. We then submitted additional, specific comments on how the draft order should be improved to achieve the Department’s intent, as well as match the project’s magnitude.
Having reviewed the final order, we recognize that the Department’s conditions are a very significant improvement over the original CMP proposal. The final order is also responsive to some of the concerns raised by Maine Audubon in our final comments. For example, the final order requires conservation areas meet a minimum acreage threshold, with an identified goal of enhancing habitat connectivity, and improves construction timing within the habitat of rusty blackbirds, a species in steep decline. However, while the final permit is improved, it ultimately falls short of our expectation that the project avoid unnecessary impacts and fully compensate for those that truly cannot be avoided. These are the most concerning shortfalls:
• The order calls for 40,000 acres of additional, offsite land conservation mitigation. This is commendable, but 40,000 acres is not enough to offset lost habitat function and the type of habitat that would be altered, given the area’s unique character and the many cumulative impacts to wildlife and habitat in the region. Maine Audubon recommended 100,000 acres, given the substantial fragmenting feature of a large above-ground transmission corridor and its unprecedented scope of permanent and temporary impacts to largely unfragmented, nationally and internationally significant forest and wildlife habitat.
• The lands to be conserved will be selected by CMP and approved by the DEP, but do not require any third-party involvement or review to ensure the selected lands will meet the permit’s land conservation goals and conditions.
• The final order does not adequately minimize and compensate for impacts to nearly 250 vernal pools (at least 43 of which are Significant Vernal Pools). Maine Audubon recommended requiring that the Critical Terrestrial Habitat around vernal pools be included when calculating offsite mitigation and that more forest cover be maintained around these important wildlife resources.
• The permit is conditioned on providing funding to replace culverts in the project area that obstruct fish and wildlife passage; again, while the permit requires substantially more dollars than the amount of funding proposed by CMP, the funding required in the final order is more than 50% less than the actual cost to replace these culverts.
• The permit identifies several “wildlife areas” and “riparian filter areas” where CMP is required to retain more vegetation to enhance animal movement across the corridor and protect the coldwater streams Brook Trout depend on. However, the vegetation management requirements are inadequate to meet the desired goals. For example, although trees between 15-35’ in height are required in the wildlife areas, there is no minimum tree canopy required and as a result, when trees approach those heights they can be cut at the base. Also, in riparian filter areas, removal of most vegetation over 10’ tall within the center of the corridor and adjacent to the stream is still allowed. These standards will not provide adequate shading of brook trout streams or enough cover or pathways for many forest species trying to cross the utility corridor.
• Although the permit requires a plan to manage invasive species encountered during construction, it does not require any long-term monitoring or management of invasive species, which are very likely to colonize disturbed habitat after construction is completed.
In addition to appeals of the DEP permit, NECEC will face a referendum on the November ballot that would seek to overturn the project’s approval by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The referendum effort is based on the assertion that the project does not result in a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or enough new
renewable energy to the New England energy grid to justify its impacts. While experts disagree on whether or not the project would provide a substantive clean energy benefit, Maine Audubon believes that the project must clearly demonstrate an overall net benefit of reduced emissions, while vigorously conserving fish and wildlife habitat. As it stands now, the project has an unclear climate benefit, but a clear negative impact on natural resources.
Maine must invest in considerably more renewable energy projects to achieve our bold climate mitigation and adaptation goals. Maine Audubon strongly supports these goals. However, where and how those projects are developed can—and should—be done in a way that also has overall net benefits that include wildlife, fisheries, and habitat. The minimization and compensation measures required by this permit take an important, laudable step toward requiring net benefits for the environment, but it’s not enough for such an unprecedented impact to valuable wildlife habitats. If such impacts are replicated again and again in future permits, they would have a devastating impact on Maine’s natural resources that are equally essential to meeting Maine’s climate goals. As such, Maine Audubon cannot support the project without CMP addressing the issues we identified in our final comments to the DEP.