At the heart of the public debate over the proposed power-transmission project known as the New England Clean Energy Connect is a remote swath of woods, mountains, and streams that 53 miles of newly cut corridor would cleave. It’s a rugged stretch of the state that few Mainers have laid eyes on. We sent a team of photographers for an up-close look at the embattled backcountry tract known as Segment 1. [Click here to view the photos]
In June 2018, a consortium of Massachusetts electric companies signed an agreement with Maine’s privately owned utility, Central Maine Power, and the Canadian public utility Hydro-Québec, agreeing to buy electricity generated by Canadian mega-dams and routed through Maine along a 145-mile transmission line. Environmental groups objected almost immediately to the $950 million undertaking, conceived to help Massachusetts meet state-mandated targets for renewable energy. Maine towns along the proposed corridor launched a flurry of largely symbolic votes endorsing or condemning the project, with several towns first offering, then rescinding their approval. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine voiced its support, then later withdrew it. As a candidate, Janet Mills expressed skepticism of the project, then came out in favor after being elected governor.
CMP and Hydro-Québec say the project will contribute to greenhouse-gas reduction, create some 1,600 Maine jobs during its development, and boost tax revenues in towns along the route. The companies, which stand to make billions over the life of the transmission line, have committed to a Maine benefits package worth $258 million, which includes subsidies to lower Mainers’ utility costs, funds to increase access to heat pumps and electric vehicles, and investments in broadband expansion, tourism promotion, job training, and other economic development programs.
Detractors raise several objections. Some maintain that Maine gets too little out of the deal. Environmental groups, including Sierra Club Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, argue the project doesn’t sufficiently diminish reliance on fossil fuels, that Hydro-Québec could simply use the line to reroute energy currently being sent elsewhere. “The proposed project is not about climate,” reads one NRCM brief. “It’s a shell game to sell existing hydropower to Massachusetts because they’ve agreed to pay more for it.”
But what has most galvanized opposition in Maine is the plan to cut 53 new miles of transmission corridor, clearing a strip of land that would stretch from the Canadian border southwest of Jackman to Moxie Pond, in The Forks, where it would join an existing power corridor running south. It’s a wild and woolly parcel, mostly visited by hunters and anglers, loggers and foresters, snowmobilers and ATVers, and a few intrepid hikers. The route traverses the range known as the Boundary Mountains, a rolling patchwork of thickly wooded mountainsides and more cut-over areas, all accessed by a tangle of logging roads. The corridor would pass through critical habitat for brook trout, wintering deer herds, and other species, and much of it lies within the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail.
The project has already cleared regulatory hurdles with state agencies, including the Maine Public Utilities Commission. This spring, corridor opponents submitted enough signatures to place a referendum on November’s ballot giving Maine voters the option of overturning the PUC’s approval. Political committees supported by CMP and Hydro-Québec spent nearly $20 million this year on polling, marketing, and advertising (including in this magazine) to influence the ballot measure’s outcome. Then, in August, the Maine Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional. It will not appear on November’s ballot, and the New England Clean Energy Connect now only awaits approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Department of Energy.
With federal permits pending, opponents continue to fight the corridor in court and via agency appeals. Signature gathering is underway for a replacement ballot measure, looking to 2021. Meanwhile, the company formed to execute the project has already issued hundreds of million of dollars in contracts to begin land clearing and construction along the back-of-beyond transect that planning documents call Segment 1.