Hydro-Quebec, which has spent millions fighting a November referendum aimed at defeating its proposed $1 billion hydropower project with Central Maine Power, told Maine lawmakers Thursday that it is not trying to influence the results of elections.
The government-owned utility was responding to a letter sent Wednesday by 25 current and former Maine lawmakers to its CEO and the Quebec premier asking them to stop trying to influence the outcome of a referendum on the controversial project that would bring Canadian hydropower to the regional grid through western Maine.
The letter came after Hydro-Quebec emerged as a nearly equal player with CMP in the campaign against the referendum. A Maine political committee controlled by the Canadian utility and almost solely funded by a U.S. subsidiary has spent $6.2 million on the race through June, according to state filings. It is already the most expensive referendum in Maine history.
In July, Hydro-Quebec signed a $329,000 contract with Forbes Tate, a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm that had to register under a U.S. law that makes companies working for foreign entities disclose relationships. The contract includes a poll disclosed on Wednesday aiming to test responses to positive and negative messages about the project.
On Wednesday, the current and former lawmakers said they are concerned that Hydro-Quebec is exploiting a loophole in Maine ethics laws that they sought to close when the pandemic hit and the Maine Legislature adjourned abruptly in March. A bill sponsored by Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, would prohibit contributions, expenditures and participation by foreign nationals to influence referendum questions.
“Hydro-Quebec’s campaign efforts are not aimed at influencing upcoming elections,” Serge Abergel, director of external relations for the utility, wrote in a letter Thursday to Ackley and others. “Rather, we aim to provide facts to inform Mainers in consideration of a ballot question that would deny Maine the largest clean energy project in our region, as well as significant long-term benefits for the state.”
Abergel contended that while Hydro-Quebec respects Maine’s laws, its communication efforts are focused on sharing facts about the project and it will continue with its campaign. He said the campaign was directed at a referendum and not a political candidate.
Ackley said in response that if the corridor deal is defeated as a result of the referendum question, either taxes will go up or services will be capped in Quebec.
“Never before have we seen multi-million-dollar spending from an entity that is owned by a foreign government and it is totally interested in representing the interests of the citizens,” Ackley said.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee and a top CMP opponent, said he has no objection to government-owned utilities or investment funds doing well.
“But let’s be clear: they all seek to extract billions from us as their captive utility customers, from the CMP corridor, or both,” he said.
Ackley said he hasn’t yet heard back from the premier of Quebec. He said he hopes that the governor or the party caucuses will call for a special session to enact his bill.