It has been two years since opponents of Central Maine Power’s electric hydropower project first launched an attempt to bring it down at the ballot box. A failed question and millions of dollars in spending later, Maine residents will soon have their chance to weigh in on the project’s future.
The debate over the project has been one of the biggest political fights in years. It has united Democrats and Republicans and divided environmental groups. It has served as a proxy war between natural gas companies and a major Canadian hydropower provider, and has been fought largely by grassroots opposition and the owner of Maine’s largest electric utility.
It has been fueled by frustration with CMP after billing mishaps, winter disconnections and power outages, and created spinoff conversations about foreign government-owned companies’ political spending.
Now a referendum that will appear on November’s ballot aims to thwart the project. A “yes” vote on Question 1 is a vote in opposition to the transmission corridor, while a “no” vote lets it continue.
Campaigning around the project has been consistent, and will likely only pick up as Nov. 2 approaches. Absentee ballots will arrive at municipal offices in the first week of October, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Here is what you need to know before casting your vote.
What is the corridor project, anyway?
In 2016, Massachusetts passed a law aimed at boosting its reliance on renewable energy. Two years later, Central Maine Power won a bid with Massachusetts electricity distributors to deliver Canadian hydropower.
That deal came after Massachusetts’ first choice, a transmission line through New Hampshire called the Northern Pass, was rejected by New Hampshire regulators and New Hampshire’s highest court upheld their decision.
Since then, the CMP project has had to obtain several state and federal permits. It received the last major one, a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of Energy, in January of this year. But that did not make the project a done deal. The whole project is now in danger after a Kennebec County Superior Court judge voided a permit allowing CMP to cross two parcels of public land in Somerset County near West Forks Plantation.
If completed, the powerline will run 145 miles from the western Maine-Canada border near Beattie Township to Lewiston. There, a new converter station will bring electricity into the grid.
What is the question looking to do?
The language of the question is, “Do you want to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and to require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactively to 2020, and to require the Legislature, retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public land?”
It is structured to block the corridor on three fronts. The first part would make electric transmission lines illegal in the Upper Kennebec region — a 43,300-acre region roughly defined as being between Bingham and Wayman Lake, north of Route 201, east of Jackman to Long Pond, and west to the Canadian border. This would block CMP’s current route.
The second element would grant the Legislature the ability to approve any large transmission lines retroactive to 2020. Supporters of the corridor have seized on the “retroactive” portion of the question, claiming it will give lawmakers new powers to change laws. Opponents have countered that the statute already grants those powers to lawmakers.
The third piece would define transmission lines, landing strips, pipelines and railroad tracks as uses that substantially alter public lands. Under current law, the Bureau of Public Lands determines if a request to change lands will alter their use, and thus requires a two-thirds vote from the Legislature. If Question 1 passes, any use of public lands under those categories back to 2014 will be considered alterations — thus requiring two-thirds votes from the Legislature.
Even if the law passes, the project may not be entirely defeated. CMP has been building along certain parts of the corridor. If that continues, the utility could argue in court that it has vested rights — essentially, that it spent money on it in good faith before the laws were changed.
Why is it so controversial?
CMP has promised Maine millions of dollars to provide relief for low-income ratepayers, boost broadband expansion, help fund public education, pay for heat pumps and electric vehicle charging, and much more. It says the project will lower local electric rates and, critically, will create a major new source of renewable energy.
But opponents are skeptical the project will create the environmental benefits CMP promises. And while much of the project will be built alongside existing power lines, about 53 miles of new corridor will have to be cut in the North Woods. Some of those woods are owned by logging and timber management companies that harvest from the forest, but opponents say the corridor will damage the land’s character forever.
Some opponents have economic incentives. An economic analysis released by project supporters estimated fossil fuel and nuclear generators could lose $1.8 billion over 15 years if the corridor comes online. Two of those companies with locations in Maine, Calpine and Vistra, have spent heavily opposing the project — but they are just two players in one of the most expensive referendum campaigns in state history.
Who are the players?
CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, have been the largest spenders. Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee largely funded by CMP and similar companies, has spent $25 million since the fall of 2019, according to July filings. Its partner, Hydro-Quebec, has spent $9.6 million.
In contrast, Mainers for Local Power, funded by Calpine and Vistra, has spent $6 million to oppose the project. No CMP corridor, a small grassroots group helmed by former state Sen. Tom Saviello and Sandra Howard, has spent $212,483.
That is the money we know about. Stop the Corridor, a dark money group that does not have to disclose its donors, is one of the main factions opposed to the corridor. It is in a protracted fight with the state’s campaign finance watchdog to keep its donors secret.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s opposition arm, Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, has also operated as a dark money group — but recently registered a political spending group ahead of the referendum. CMP has also created another group, Mainers for Fair Laws, to oppose the question, as has Avangrid. How much money they will spend is yet to be seen.