A proposal to build a new transmission line through Maine to bring Quebec’s hydroelectricity into the northeastern U.S. finally gave environmentalists and fossil fuel companies something they could agree on: opposition to the project.
On Tuesday, at a ballot referendum, Maine voters rejected the proposed energy corridor, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, by about 60 to 40 per cent margin.
The outcome inverts the usual political dynamics around new energy corridors, in which oil and gas companies have clashed with environmentalists during the construction of pipelines. In this case, three fossil fuel companies poured millions of dollars into a political action committee that successfully backed the ballot referendum to halt construction of the NECEC, while environmentalists also ran their own successful parallel campaign to stop the project.
It marks a setback for Hydro Quebec, which had hoped to use the 233-kilometre high voltage transmission line — its first new line into the U.S. in three decades — to export more of its hydroelectricity from Canada into Massachusetts. But the ongoing fight over the NECEC illustrates how building new energy corridors in North America continues to generate charged political battles.
Hydro -Quebec chief executive officer Sophie Broch vowed to proceed with construction.
“This project will be built,” Brochu told Radio-Canada, “It’s already being built, employees are here. All sorts of things can happen, it will be a question of time, and in the end it can be a question of money.”
The project developer, utility Avangrid Inc., issued a statement Wednesday saying it had filed a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court challenging the referendum.
The ballot referendum, which halts construction of the project until two-thirds of the Maine legislature support the project, had drawn national attention and tens of millions of dollars poured into the state to support campaigns on both sides.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm took to Twitter, to urge voters to support the project, writing that it “will bring clean energy to New England and reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 700k cars off the road.”
Instead, the project has stalled, and could join the ranks of the Keystone XL Pipeline and other projects that have been shelved amid opposition.
For Hydro Quebec, which also spent millions of dollars trying to keep the project alive, it cuts off a lucrative opportunity to sell billions of dollars of its hydroelectricity into the New England market. The company had earlier tried to build the transmission line through New Hampshire but did not obtain the necessary permit.
Still, Adam Cote, a lawyer at the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, who represented the political action committee Mainers for Local Power — which drew more than $25 million in donations from three fossil fuel companies with headquarters in other states — said it would be a mistake to assume that the outcome of the election signals anything about broader about Maine voters’ attitude toward climate change.
Instead, Cote insisted the rejection can be summed up by the political adage, ‘all politics are local,’ and said many voters mistrust Central Maine Power, the utility building the transmission line, which Hydro Quebec is partnered with.
Last November, for the third straight year, Central Maine Power ranked at the bottom of a nationwide survey of U.S. utilities, based on customer satisfaction, conducted by JD Power.
"Our service in Maine has gotten so bad that CMP has been rated the worst utility in the entire U.S." - ADAM COTE
“People support clean energy in Maine,” he said, “but it was just, people were like, ‘this is a terrible utility that we can’t trust to do little things right, they’re doing this to make money.’”
In January 2020, the Maine Public Utilities Commission penalized the company US$10 million and said it must submit to auditing for 18 months after thousands of customers reported seeing larger than expected bills. It found long-term customer service failures.
He said Central Maine Power had once been a well-functioning utility but that problems started after Spanish energy giant Iberdrola SA bought CMP’s parent company in 2008 and subsequently folded the utility into a U.S. subsidiary Avangrid.
A 2019 investigation by the Maine’s Bangor Daily News , found that while costs rose under Iberdrola, “customer service deteriorated” and that the utility often lacked sufficient staffing.
“Our service in Maine has gotten so bad that CMP has been rated the worst utility in the entire U.S. … which is really saying something when utilities in California have been accused of burning down their state,” said Cote.