Rather than let the disappointment of their unsuccessful citizens' ballot initiative deter them, opponents of a planned Central Maine Power Co. transmission line are gearing up for a second crack at stopping the project.
The line's detractors believe they will come out on top this time as they heed the lessons learned from their earlier failure, according to the leader of the group behind the ill-fated ballot initiative.
In 2017, Avangrid Inc. subsidiary CMP proposed to build a $950 million 145-mile transmission line, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, to deliver 1.2 GW of hydroelectric power from Canada to the New England power grid. Opponents of the project gathered tens of thousands of signatures in order to put on the November ballot a measure aimed at overturning the Maine Public Utilities Commission's 2019 decision approving the project.
But the constitutionality of the citizens' ballot initiative was contested by Central Maine Power, which won its case in front of the Maine Supreme Court in August.
Despite that loss, former Republican state senator and anti-NECEC activist Tom Saviello on Sept. 16 filed paperwork with the Maine secretary of state for a second citizens' initiative to be included on the 2021 ballot.
In an interview, Saviello explained that the initial ballot push against the NECEC project represented the first time he had been involved in crafting a statewide referendum and that the citizens group he leads, Say No to NECEC, had no experience with writing a bulletproof ballot question.
The state supreme court decision ruling against the ballot initiative centered on the question of whether the measure fell within the scope of the citizens' constitutional power to legislate. The court found that it did not, noting that the Maine Public Utilities Commission is a quasi-executive agency whose decisions are not legislative in nature.
But Saviello said he and Say No to NECEC have learned their lesson and reframed the question for the 2021 ballot.
According to the new application, the ballot initiative if passed would require two-thirds of the state legislature to approve any high-impact transmission line construction as well as "any use of public lands for transmission lines and similar linear projects." It also would prohibit any high-impact transmission line construction in approximately 43,300 acres of the Upper Kennebec Region.
The initiative further would include a retroactivity clause to apply the measures to any high-impact electric transmission line that has not begun construction by Sept. 16 of this year. Taken together, Saviello explained, the initiative's provisions should allow the project's opponents to weave around the earlier hurdles.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has 15 business days from Sept. 17 to review the proposed ballot measure and approve the suggested language, according to Saviello.
"There's more anger out there than people [at Central Maine Power] realize," Saviello said. Suggesting that Say No to NECEC was not fully prepared for the process the first time around, Saviello said the group is more organized now and can easily acquire the signatures it needs.
When asked to comment on the potential second ballot initiative, a Central Maine Power spokesperson referred the request to a spokesperson with Clean Energy Matters — a political action committee founded by Central Maine Power and Avangrid subsidiary NECEC Transmission LLC to promote the high-voltage, direct-current transmission project.
Clean Energy Matters provided a statement from NECEC Transmission CEO Thorn Dickinson that said the new initiative "appears to be yet another attempt to use Maine's referendum system to politicize a project which has already been approved by Maine's executive branch, and affirmed by Maine's judicial branch."
As of Sept. 18, Clean Energy Matters spent $11.3 million since its formation and accumulated $11.6 million, according to Maine Campaign Finance, a website run by the Maine Ethics Commission. Of that amount, Maine Campaign Finance said Central Maine Power contributed $7.5 million while two other Avangrid subsidiaries together contributed a total of $4.1 million.
The bulk of that money — just over $7.77 million — has gone toward television ads, the website said.