Opponents of the planned New England Clean Energy Connect electric transmission line through western Maine are launching another effort to try to defeat the project at the ballot box.
Say No to NECEC filed papers Wednesday with the Maine Secretary of State to launch a second effort to put a referendum over the transmission line on the ballot, this time in November 2021. Among other steps, the measure would require the Maine Legislature to approve any high-impact power transmission lines through the state by a two-thirds majority vote.
The referendum also would make that approval requirement retroactive by six years to ensure that the corridor, financed by Canadian Hydro-Quebec and Central Maine Power parent company Avangrid, must be approved by a legislative supermajority.
Last month, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that Say No’s first referendum question, also intended to stop the corridor, was unconstitutional. That referendum, if it had passed in November, would have ordered regulators to overturn a previous decision to approve the 145-mile transmission line from the Quebec border to Lewiston, where it would connect to the New England power grid, with the electricity generated in Canada eventually going to Massachusetts customers.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that, in a referendum, voters take on legislative powers, and that the Legislature could not order regulators in the executive branch to overturn a prior decision. That meant the referendum was removed from this November’s ballot.
But Tom Saviello, a former state senator and opponent of the corridor, said the court decision energized opponents of the project to try to stop it another way.
Submitting the proposed referendum to the Secretary of State is the first step. The secretary has 30 days to approve the wording of the measure, and then backers of the referendum would have until early February to gather more than 63,000 valid voter signatures to get the question on the ballot next fall.
Saviello said that, as with the initial referendum, opponents of the corridor project will shoot for about 72,000 signatures, a cushion needed because some signatures are invariably thrown out.
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem getting enough signatures, even in COVID-19 time,” he said.
Sandra Howard, another prominent opponent of the corridor, agreed.
“The appetite for this in the grassroots is just ever expanding,” she said.
Howard said groups opposing the transmission project saw a surge in donations even after the state Supreme Court ruling, and that opponents are aware it could be a long fight.She vowed “to fight this project tooth and nail to defeat it. It’s definitely a marathon.”
Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee formed by CMP and its parent company to support the corridor project, issued a brief statement Wednesday calling the new referendum proposal “another desperate attempt to use Maine’s referendum system to derail a project which has been approved by Maine’s executive branch and affirmed by Maine’s judicial branch.”
The statement, attributed to Jon Breed, executive director of the PAC, went on to say that the corridor represented a good deal for Maine and a boost to its economy.
Saviello said he expects CMP to go to court over this referendum if organizers gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot.
“Of course CMP is going to challenge it. They have megabucks,” said Saviello, who said he expects the utility to question the retroactive provision for Legislative approval. But he also said that the Maine Supreme Court has, in the past, upheld some retroactive measures.
In addition to the Legislative approval requirement, the referendum also would designate the Upper Kennebec region – through which the corridor would pass – a critical habitat and force the Legislature to vote on the lease of a small stretch of public land that the corridor would pass through.
CMP has not yet started construction on the corridor, which has received most of the permits and approvals it needs. It still needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a presidential declaration because it would traverse an international border.
An approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection issued earlier this year is being challenged in court.