Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, speaks at a rally after opponents of the Central Maine Power corridor submitted signatures to get an earlier referendum question on the ballot on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, outside the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Few visited a remote stretch of woods in western Maine before construction on Central Maine Power’s $1 billion hydropower corridor began there. Then in January it got a visit from a video crew working for Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.

Months later, producers flew Tom Saviello, a leader of the group No CMP Corridor, to Los Angeles for a short sit-down with Carlson, the conservative provocateur who also has a home in Bryant Pond, where he films his show occasionally. The result was an April web segment where the Fox News personality hit the project as a “corrupt green energy scam.” (CMP allies pushed back, noting factual errors and saying corridor supporters were not interviewed.)

Saviello returned to the show in early June to discuss the project. In an interview, he said the anti-corridor movement would take whatever help it can get. But he acknowledged the segment had been met with mixed reactions among people with different partisan affiliations.

“My son said to me, ‘Dad, you did a really good job, but I wish it was on another show besides Tucker Carlson,’” said Saviello, a former Republican state senator from Wilton.

It highlights the strange divisions the corridor has created in both major parties and Maine’s environmental community while uniting many otherwise at odds. Moneyed energy companies continue to fight over a 145-mile transmission line even as work is underway ahead of a potential November referendum and despite grassroots opposition rooted in mistrust of CMP.

On the pro-corridor side, CMP and its parent company Avangrid along with Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian energy company that would generate hydropower for the project, have funded virtually all of the pro-corridor messaging as well as legal efforts that successfully halted a referendum last year. Political spending from these companies, totaling more than $30 million so far, has been one major talking point for anti-corridor activists.

The corridor has gained support from lawmakers of both parties including Gov. Janet Mills, who backed the project in 2019 after CMP  agreed to some concessions and recently vetoed a bill that would have blocked Hydro-Quebec from spending on the referendum. Former Gov. Paul LePage, Mills’ likely opponent next year, helped pave the way for the corridor in his final days in office and was paid to advocate for it in 2019. Both the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine AFL-CIO also back the project.

“Big issues like this that impact the whole state are going to have wide, diverse viewpoints,” said state Rep. Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough, one of the corridor’s supporters in the Legislature. “They’re going to have approaches from all different sides.”

Corridor opponents are an even more eclectic group. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Environment Maine are among the environmental nonprofits that oppose the project, contesting CMP’s claims about potential economic and climate benefits and decrying the effects of development in the North Woods.

They have since been joined by several energy companies — NextEra, Calpine and Vistra — which could lose out financially if the corridor is completed. Those companies have been the major funders behind Mainers for Local Power, the political committee that has helped fund two anti-corridor ballot initiatives. A dark-money group on that side of the fight is also under investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission over whether it must disclose funding sources and gave a contribution of at least $1,000 to the Natural Resources Council of Maine in 2019.

But corridor opponents also have considerable grassroots support. They twice gathered enough signatures for ballot questions on the project, most recently with about 17,000 more valid signatures than required and gained a powerful TV ally in Carlson.

Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, Monday, April 26, 2021, near Bingham. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

There are inevitable tensions when groups so often opposed find themselves arguing in favor of the same cause, said Anya Fetcher, state director of Environment Maine. The group opposes the corridor, arguing that hydropower is not as clean as wind or solar and raising concerns about forest fragmentation and loss of native plants.

While opposition to the corridor may align Environment Maine with fossil-fuel generators on that issue, Fetcher noted the group faces off against the same companies in advocacy around divesting from fossil fuels and increasing Maine’s investment in renewables.

“There’s the thing of, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ and I don’t know that I fully agree with that all the time,” she said. “But I think that there are times when we can put aside differences and focus on a particular issue.”

The divide among environmental groups about the project depends in part on differing ideas about what the energy from the corridor will displace. Opponents generally say the environmental costs are not worth the limited benefits of hydropower with better renewables on the way. But advocates argue there is a short-term need to offset fossil fuels and replace nuclear plants set to be decommissioned in the region.

“We must slash polluting emissions by replacing oil and gas with renewable energy sources, by using energy more efficiently, and by improving our energy infrastructure — and fast,” said Jake O’Neil, spokesperson for the Conservation Law Foundation, which is among the environmental groups supporting the project.

CMP’s past struggles have also been fodder for corridor opponents and even the utility’s supporters in this fight have been loath to defend it. The company was ranked the worst electric utility in the U.S. in a J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey for the third straight year last fall after probes into billing and metering issues led to a record penalty in 2020.

“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” Caiazzo said. “The corridor was not the smoothest-executed project by any stretch of the imagination, but I think you’ll learn from that and you use that as a stepping stone to the next project.”

There is no direct link between those issues and the corridor besides CMP’s involvement. But distrust in the company has helped make opposition to the project so potent, Saviello acknowledged.

“That is really one of the overarching things,” he said. “People just dislike Central Maine Power.”

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