(The Center Square) – A proposal that seeks to block a 145-mile hydropower transmission line that would cut through Maine's pristine forests is inching toward the November ballot.
On Monday, Secretary of State Shenna Bellow's office certified more than 80,000 signatures turned in by opponents of the project, clearing a major hurdle to putting the issue before voters.
Sandi Howard, who heads the No CMP Corridor PAC, a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the project, called the progress toward the ballot a "bittersweet moment."
"It's bitter because the people of Maine should have had their say last November, but it's sweet because it shows that no matter what CMP or their high powered lawyers throw at us, opposition to the project remains as strong as ever," she said in a statement. "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."
Howard and other opponents say the project would carve through scenic swathes of untouched forest in the North Maine Woods, harming the environment and leading to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism.
The proposal now moves to the Legislature, which can also approve the changes. If lawmakers take no action on it, the referendum could be cleared for the November ballot.
Opponents of the CMP project had gathered enough signatures to put a similar question to voters in the Nov. 3 elections, but the state's Supreme Judicial Court deemed it unconstitutional.
The latest referendum seeks to ban transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region and require legislative approval of transmission lines longer than 50 miles, which would effectively block the CMP project and require similar plans to be approved by the Legislature.
Central Maine Power’s $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect calls for providing up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England region.
The project has cleared several regulatory hurdles, including approval by Maine's Land Use Planning Commission and state Department of Environmental Protection. In November, it was granted a permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In January, the project was granted a presidential permit that will allow the transmission line to cross the Canadian border.
Jon Breed, executive director of Clean Energy Matters, a group created to support the project, vowed to conduct a review of the petitions to determine if they are valid signatures. The company has challenged previous signatures collected by opponents of the project.
"Fossil fuel companies spent more than a million dollars on paid signature gathering efforts," Breed said in a statement. "The fact that these companies provided hundreds of people with massive financial incentives in exchange for signatures warrants our utmost scrutiny."
Breed said the project will create jobs, help green the regional power grid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are contributing to a warming planet.
“Two hundred seventy-five Maine residents are already on the job building this project," he said in the statement. "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."