AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of a bill to mandate a carbon-emissions study before Maine permits a proposed electricity transmission corridor from Quebec to Massachusetts packed a Friday hearing as energy regulators close in on a decision on the highly controversial project.
The nearly five-hour hearing comes at a key time for the $1 billion Central Maine Power-led proposal to send Hydro-Quebec power to Massachusetts. Environmental groups have come out on both sides of the fight over the 145-mile line, which has so far been waged in TV ad campaigns and small-town votes.
Opposition to the corridor — particularly in Franklin and Somerset counties, where it would run through 50 miles of largely pristine forests — seems to be at a fever pitch after Gov. Janet Mills backed the plan last month. Wilton became the eighth town to oppose it earlier this month, and the Democratic governor’s larger hometown of Farmington will likely follow suit March 25.
The regulatory process has been confined to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, whose staff is expected to produce a recommendation for three commissioners to consider by April 1. A formal decision and state and federal permitting processes would follow if it’s approved.
The Legislature hasn’t weighed in yet, but that may soon change. A bill from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, would make the Maine Department of Environmental Protection study the project’s net effect on carbon emissions in New England, Quebec and other regions — one of the more contested policy aspects of the project so far.
A 2018 study for the utilities commission found the corridor would reduce emissions annually in New England by the equivalent of taking 767,000 cars off the roads. CMP and Hydro-Quebec have said surplus hydropower would be used to fulfill the terms of the Massachusetts contract.
But a review done for opposition groups last year said the contract does not preclude Hydro-Quebec from diverting hydropower from other markets to fulfill the deal, which could offset emissions reductions.
Opponents of the project dominated the hearing on Carson’s bill before the Legislature’s environment committee on Friday, which was marked by distrust of the utility. Noah Hale of West Forks said in testimony that CMP is the “most fraudulent company in Maine right now.”
“We need to look at the whole system to understand whether carbon emissions would increase in other jurisdictions even if they decrease in Massachusetts,” Carson said.
His bill does not provide funding for such a study, which Mark Bergeron, the land resources director for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said could not be absorbed by existing funds and could delay the permitting process.
CMP and business interests opposed the bill on Friday, with Thorn Dickinson, the vice president of business development for CMP’s parent company, saying “extensive time” has been spent discussing emissions at utilities commission deliberations, with ample evidence to back CMP’s claims.
Three Republicans and six Democrats besides Carson support the bill, which is one of the Legislature’s first responses to the project since former Republican Gov. Paul LePage vowed to push it through in early 2018. Mills, a Democrat, was skeptical of the line in her 2018 campaign, but she backed it after CMP offered a $250 million, 40-year benefits package.
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