Even as Central Maine Power Co. starts construction of a 145-mile electricity transmission line through the western part of the state, a potential referendum that could block the project has taken a step toward a statewide vote.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said in a news release Monday that her office received 80,506 valid signatures in petitions backing the citizens initiative, more than enough for it to advance. The Maine Legislature will now consider the proposal, and can enact it as written or place it on the Nov. 2 general ballot.
Opponents of the $950 million project in January submitted 95,622 signatures, of which 15,116 were found not valid. A citizens referendum currently requires a minimum of 63,067 valid signatures from registered Maine voters in order to be considered.
The proposed referendum would require the approval of the Legislature for construction of high-impact transmission lines and approval from two-thirds of legislators for lines using public lands. If passed, the legislation would also ban those lines in the upper Kennebec Valley, including a 53-mile stretch of undeveloped land near the Quebec border where CMP plans to build.
Earlier this month, the company began installing the first of 829 utility poles that will carry renewably produced hydropower from Hydro-Quebec in Canada and deliver it to the New England power grid via a junction in Lewiston.
Nearly 300 Mainers have been hired to work the corridor’s construction, with Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp. and other local contractors planning to hire hundreds more, according to project officials. CMP and its parent, Connecticut-based Avangrid Inc. (NYSE: AGR), have said the project will create more than 1,600 jobs during the two-and-a-half-year construction period and make electricity service more reliable.
However, opponents claim NECEC will jeopardize the state's natural resources and wildlife, and that the project hasn't been fairly scrutinized.
Sandi Howard, co-leader of opposition group No CMP Corridor, commented on the referendum certification in a prepared statement, saying, “No matter what CMP or their high-powered lawyers throw at us, opposition to the project remains as strong as ever. Now, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of Mainers from all corners of the state, and against CMP's best efforts, the people of Maine (their customers) will vote once and for all on the fate of the NECEC project."
But Clean Energy Matters, a group supporting the project, promised to review the petition signatures, as allowed under law. In its own statement, the group's executive director, Jon Breed, also said, “The last thing we should be doing in the middle of a global pandemic is issuing more pink slips to Mainers because fossil fuel companies don’t like competing with renewable energy."
The citizens referendum effort is the second for project opponents. Previously, No CMP Corridor led a successful drive to obtain enough signatures for a referendum asking voters to overturn an approval by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found the referendum unconstitutional, saying the citizens initiative process wasn’t designed to alter regulatory actions.