March 23, 2019
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Accusations of backroom deals make sparks fly at hearing on CMP project

Fred Bever | Maine Public
Fred Bever | Maine Public
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine rescinded its support for Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project proposed for western Maine. Others have followed suit, though the project has many supporters, including Gov. Janet Mills.

Proponents and opponents of Central Maine Power’s $1 billion hydropower corridor project offered up more details as each side tried to convince regulators Thursday to either grant or reject a certificate of necessity that the utility needs to move forward with the project.

About a dozen parties to the CMP case, some with multiple representatives, spoke before the Maine Public Utilities Commission in a seven-hour session that started at 10 a.m. March 7 at the commission’s headquarters in Hallowell.

The parties included the office of the public advocate, CMP and its parent Avangrid, a representative from the governor’s office and several environmental groups.

At issue was a stipulation that CMP and nine other parties, including the governor’s office, filed with the commission Feb. 21 in which they agreed to sweeten the deal for local towns and other parties to gain their approval for the 145-mile corridor.

If the commission grants the certificate of public necessity, the stipulation would be attached to it as an action item.

The 40-page deal calls for a $50 million low-income customer benefits fund, a $140 million rate relief fund, a $10 million broadband fund and a $15 million heat pump fund.

It aims to quell concerns from opponents that the project doesn’t benefit Mainers enough, causes environmental harm and doesn’t adequately show greenhouse gas mitigation benefits.

The project, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, would deliver electricity to Massachusetts to help that state achieve its clean-energy goals.

Those testifying at the meeting Thursday mostly reiterated positions they have filed before with the PUC or stated publicly.

However, there were some heated moments when the parties testifying talked about how individual and group deals aimed at swaying support for the controversial project were struck.

Ben Smith, a lawyer representing the Western Maine and Rivers Corp., complained of allegations that his group essentially sold out. The group in June 2018 agreed to a $22 million deal with CMP for conservation projects to mitigate the negative effects on the scenery around the Kennebec River Gorge. Smith cited allegations that the nonprofit had been created by CMP and that it had been bribed to take the CMP agreement.

“All those statements are defamatory and they are false,” he told a packed room at the commission’s Hallowell office.

Hearing examiners Mitch Tannenbaum and Chris Simpson ran the meeting.

The meeting became contentious after lunch, when commission staff and parties testifying at the meeting discussed the details of what some alleged were backroom meetings since last fall to arrive at the stipulation agreement.

Some parties to the CMP case said they either were unaware of the meetings or asked to sign the stipulation late in the game, without having any opportunity to contribute to it before it was completed.

Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said he and representatives of the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, both supporters of the stipulation, first got together informally last fall because they thought the case needed a broad settlement and they wanted to help create it.

Hobbins said he set a meeting on Nov. 8 at his Portland office, which is within the Department of Labor Office. At that meeting, representatives from CMP’s parent company attended.

There were various bilateral meetings among parties involved in the CMP case throughout the fall. All but one included Hydro-Quebec.

Details of the meetings were submitted in a document to the PUC on March 1 by the Office of the Public Advocate and the IECG.

Hydro-Quebec is not a formal party to the CMP case. However, Hydro-Quebec will supply electricity for the CMP project if it is approved.

Hydro-Quebec also has granted concessions in the stipulation, including $10 million for electric vehicles.

A big boost to the CMP project came on Feb. 21, when the stipulation was filed with CMP and included the governor’s office as a supporter. The same day the governor held a news conference supporting the project.

What wasn’t known publicly at the time is that Mills had received a letter the previous day from Eric Martel, president and CEO of Hydro-Quebec, assuring her that his company would honor the financial and other commitments it had made in the stipulation to be filed the following day.

The Governor’s Energy Office filed a copy of the letter with the PUC on March 1.

The commission made no ruling on the stipulation at Thursday’s meeting, but after seven hours, merely thanked the parties to the case for participating.

The staff will write an Examiners’ Report, which considers the facts of the case and reviews all the issues. That report is due March 18. The deadline was extended from March 1 because of the stipulation.

 



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