Maine’s most expensive ballot fight ever unites natural gas companies and environmentalists

Washington Examiner

The fate of a clean energy transmission line lies in the hands of Mainers this fall in a ballot battle so fierce it’s broken political spending records in the state. The battle lines over the project, a roughly 150-mile transmission line that will carry Canadian hydropower through Maine to Massachusetts, aren’t traditional.

The fight has put Texas-based natural gas companies on the same side as many local environmentalists, staunchly opposed to the project but for different reasons. Current and former Maine state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have criticized the project, whereas Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who rarely see eye-to-eye, have both supported it.

At a high level, the fight shows how challenging it could be to build clean energy transmission lines across the United States, which energy experts say will be critical to decarbonizing the power grid.

“Nobody really likes these big infrastructure projects. You get the same thing if you’re talking about a new highway. There’s always a little bit of pushback on it,” said Gary Sutherland, director of strategic affairs for Northeast markets for HydroQuebec, which is supplying the hydropower for the Maine project.

But transmission lines are “kind of a necessary evil when talking about the electricity system,” he added.

Nonetheless, the big question for Mainers in November is whether or not the transmission line is a good deal for the state. If successful, the ballot measure would force the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reverse a decision from April 2019 granting approval for the project.

The fight is only expected to get fiercer over the next few months.

Developers of the project, including HydroQuebec, Central Maine Power, and the Maine utility’s parent company Avangrid, have broken records with their spending. Two political action committees funded by the companies spent roughly $17 million as of the end of June, an amount that has trounced the state’s record for the most spent on a single side of a referendum, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Opponents of the project are ramping up spending, too. Mainers for Local Power, a political action committee funded by Texas-based natural gas companies Calpine and Vistra, announced July 15 it had placed nearly $6 million in fall ad buys. The two companies operate natural gas plants in Maine.

Who is the outside influence?

The battle over the transmission project has also become a fight over which companies have Maine’s best interest at heart.

Proponents of the project say Mainers for Local Power is an attempt by fossil fuel companies to block clean energy, a threat to their bottom line.

“Ultimately, this is a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy,” said Jon Breed, executive director of Clean Energy Matters, the PAC funded by Avangrid. He cited a study by Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs and the state’s chamber of commerce showing fossil fuel generators could lose $1.8 billion over 15 years due to hydropower suppressing electricity rates.

Breed also pointed to a dark money group called Stop the Corridor that has yet to disclose its donors and has sued the Maine Ethics Commission to stop it from requiring the group to reveal the source of its funding.

“It would be rich for foreign corporations to try to spin Mainers for Local Power’s activities as outside involvement given the supporters of the project are actually foreign entities,” said Jon Conradi, a spokesman for the Calpine and Vistra-funded PAC.

“At the end of the day, there’s, of course, a business interest. That’s part of the reason why Mainers for Local Power is involved here,” Conradi added. “None of this changes the fact that this is a bad deal for the state of Maine.”

Opponents of the project balk at the enormous spending from Avangrid and HydroQuebec. That extends beyond just TV ads and campaigning, but also legal fees. Avangrid has sued to block the referendum from even appearing on the ballot in November, arguing it is unconstitutional. That question is now before Maine’s Supreme Court.

“I find it really disturbing the amount of money that is being spent by foreign companies,” said Rick Bennett, a former state Senate president and former Maine GOP chairman who opposes the project. “I thought everybody was concerned about foreign influence in elections. These guys have decided, ‘No, this is their manner of doing business.’”

Environmental harm vs. economic benefit

The project has drawn the ire of several local environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club, because a third of the line would cut through 53 miles of forest in northern Maine.

Project developers, including HydroQuebec and Central Maine Power, say it’s a working forest, already used for logging for years. And Central Maine Power made “significant” changes to the project to further minimize its environmental footprint as part of the permitting process at Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, said Thorn Dickinson, CEO of NECEC Transmission, the company within Avangrid overseeing the project.

The state’s environmental regulators, too, attached conditions to the permit, as recommended by some environmental groups. Under those conditions, project developers will have to construct the line with “tapered vegetation,” which minimizes the effects on the forest by reducing the corridor’s width by roughly two-thirds, Dickinson said.

Central Maine Power will also have to purchase and protect 40,000 acres of Maine forest, compared with the roughly 1,000 acres of land it will have to clear for the line, he added.

Those conditions were enough to satisfy some environmental groups. For example, the Conservation Law Foundation has lent its support for the changes and the project overall, saying it will allow the region to retire fossil fuel generation.

Other environmental groups aren’t convinced.

“All of Maine’s 10.5 million acres of so-called north woods is working forest, but just saying that completely diminishes how rare this landscape is. There’s no place like it east of the Mississippi,” said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

By Didisheim’s tally, the project would cross 300 rivers and streams, including more than 200 cold-water fisheries, and eliminate 11 miles of riparian zone, which is the buffer around streams critical for keeping them cool and protecting water quality.

“This corridor cutting through that landscape would have a host of impacts that would forever diminish that area,” he added.

The effects on climate change

Didisheim also downplays the climate change benefits of the project, arguing it wouldn’t reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions because it uses existing hydropower instead of new renewable energy generation.

Project proponents, however, say that is untrue. Sutherland of HydroQuebec said the hydropower would displace higher-emitting resources in the region. He also said Quebec’s hydropower could ultimately serve as clean baseload power to back up increasing amounts of intermittent wind and solar on New England’s grid, a “natural battery” for the region.

“This is the biggest clean energy initiative, definitely in Maine, but I would say throughout New England,” Sutherland said. “There are a lot of things we can do to fight against climate change, but those big projects that can really make a dent in the emissions profile of an entire region, there are not that many out there.”

Would Maine reap the benefits?

On July 10, HydroQuebec announced a new settlement deal with Maine on the project, promising to deliver 500,000-megawatt-hours of hydropower to the state at a discounted price. Prior to that deal, all of the hydropower was heading to Massachusetts to help that state meet its ambitious climate change goals.

“It’s an earned media gimmick that does nothing to substantially alter the entirety of the deal,” Conradi, of Mainers for Local Power, said. Didisheim, too, said the deal is “pennies on the dollar” compared to the billions HydroQuebec stands to make.

“The whole thing looks like a shell game to us,” he said, adding HydroQuebec is looking to “capitalize on the willingness of Massachusetts ratepayers to pay more” than the company’s other ratepayers are willing to pay.

Project developers, however, say the settlement deal, and the project in general, would be a boon for the state. Under the deal, HydroQuebec and Central Maine Power would provide a combined more than $250 million to Maine over 20 years, with investments in heat pumps, electric vehicles, and broadband, as well as electricity rate relief for people in the state.

The project would also create 1,600 construction jobs, which proponents say are even more important now as Maine suffers from the pandemic-induced recession.

Dickinson, CEO of NECEC Transmission, said he was surprised by the staunch opposition the project has received. “I was expecting people to come to the conclusion that this was really fantastic for the state,” he said.

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