After the most expensive referendum campaign in Maine’s history, voters on Tuesday decisively rejected a controversial corridor project spearheaded by Central Maine Power, dealing a blow to the utility and reflecting its continued unpopularity as an effort to replace the company with a consumer-owned model continues.
With more than 85% of the results in, 59% of voters supported Question 1, while 41% voted in opposition. The ballot initiative sought to stop a 145-mile transmission corridor by CMP affiliate New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) that would deliver hydro-electric power from Quebec to Massachusetts. Voters were asked if they wanted to ban high-impact transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and also whether they wanted to “require the legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, retroactively to 2020, and require the legislature, retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public lands.”
The project and subsequent ballot initiative prompted a vigorous debate, with turnout in Tuesday’s election high for an off-year contest. Fighting against the referendum, CMP and its affiliates poured over $40 millioninto the vote no on Question 1 campaign, making it the biggest spender in the race. In addition, CMP partner Hydro-Quebec spent over $20 million wading into the debate on the project.
On the other side, energy companies that would stand to lose money if the corridor is built spent large sums opposing the project. However, the campaign against the transmission line also featured grassroots organizations and green groups that have pointed to the environmental destruction of clearing a path through Canadian and Maine forests, the damage caused by hydro power megadams and a report that stated the project will not result in “a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and may even increase them.”
‘The people of Maine have spoken’
After the race was called Tuesday night, those opposed to the corridor celebrated their victory and urged CMP to respect the results by halting the project.
“Today, Maine citizens had a voice in the development of the CMP corridor and any future proposed corridors,” said Tom Saviello, the lead petitioner of the referendum and a former Republican state senator. “My goal all along was to give them that voice. The vote today proved Mainers cannot be hoodwinked or bought off by CMP and Hydro-Quebec. I call on CMP to stop all construction as the people of Maine have spoken.”
In her statement, Sandi Howard, director of the group No CMP Corridor, praised the hard work of volunteers who collected signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Howard added that she hopes “CMP now understands the gravity of the situation they’re in. They’ve already inflicted so much damage on a part of Maine that I love, and now, it’s time for this destruction to stop.”
Others also called on CMP to halt construction on the corridor. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an opponent of the project, tweeted Tuesday night that CMP must “respect the will of Maine people by stopping this project immediately.” The group added that if CMP refuses, officials should suspend the permits for the project and require the company to restore the parts of Western Maine that have been damaged by work on the corridor.
Proponents of the project, however, struck a defiant tone in reacting to the results of the referendum, with Clean Energy Matters — a PAC connected with the utility — arguing that the ballot measure was unconstitutional.
“With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue,” the group said, according to the Bangor Daily News.
As a result, it appears likely the corridor will continue to be mired in ongoing litigation.
Still, the referendum reflects a hostile environment in Maine toward CMP, which has been rated the worst in the U.S. among utilities for customer satisfaction for three years in a row, has had significant issues with billing and metering in the past, and has been criticized for passing storm repair costs onto consumers.
Reflecting those frustrations, a legislative campaign earlier this year sought to replace CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned model. Proponents of that bill argued it would provide Maine with more reliable and cost-effective power while speeding the state’s transition to renewables. But the measure was vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Janet Mills, who supports the CMP corridor.
Advocates have renewed that fight, however, by launching an effort to gather enough signatures to put the question of whether to create a consumer-owned utility on the ballot in the November 2022 election. Volunteers were at myriad polling places Tuesday to gather signatures for that proposed referendum.
CMP wasn’t the only issue on Tuesday’s referendum ballot. Voters also approved Question 2, supporting a $100 million bond “to build or improve roads, bridges, railroads, airports, transit facilities and ports and make other transportation investments, to be used to leverage an estimated $253,000,000 in federal and other funds.” That measure passed in a landslide, with 72% of voters in favor and 28% opposed.
Question 3, which asked voters if they wanted to amend Maine’s constitution to include the right to food, was also approved by a comfortable margin Tuesday. The initiative drew the support of 60.5% of voters, with 39.5% in opposition, making Maine the first state in the country to add the right to food to the constitution.
“We won!” tweeted Betsy Garrold, a food sovereignty advocate and supporter of Question 3. “The people of Maine now have a constitutionally protected right to the food of their choosing. First in the nation.”
In the leadup to Election Day, Question 3 drew support from a variety of advocates, including sitting lawmakers from both parties and some farmers. Others, such as animal welfare advocates, opposed the measure.