Opponents of a 145-mile hydropower transmission corridor that would run through some of Maine's most pristine forests are gearing up for another ballot fight to block the project.
Central Maine Power’s $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect calls for providing up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England region. The utility argues that the clean energy project is good for Maine and the environment, and it will reduce carbon emissions that scientists say are contributing to a warming planet.
But opponents say the project would carve through scenic swathes of untouched forest in the North Maine Woods and lead to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism.
"We're not giving up or going away," said Sandi Howard, who heads the No CMP Corridor PAC, a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the project. "Our grassroots army will not stand idly by while these mega-corporations exploit Maine’s natural resources and rural economies for profit."
The transmission line would be installed along existing utility corridors, but a new corridor would have to be cleared through 53 miles of northern Maine wilderness.
"It would cut through the heart of our state, and it would forever change the culture and character of the undeveloped northern Maine woods," Howard said.
Opponents of the CMP project had gathered enough signatures to put a question on the Nov. 3 ballot asking voters to block the project, but the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional after a lengthy court battle.
Unlike the previous referendum, the latest initiative seeks to ban transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region and require legislative approval of transmission lines longer than 50 miles. The changes would effectively block the CMP project and require similar plans to be approved by lawmakers, many of whom publicly oppose the project.
Howard said volunteers gathered more than 23,000 signatures during the Nov. 3 election – about a third of the required number to qualify for the November 2021 ballot. She said the state Legislature could also approve the changes, forgoing the need to go to the ballot.
Jon Breed, executive director of Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee supporting the project, said that the wording of the new referendum question could have "harmful consequences" for renewable energy projects in Maine, not just NECEC hydropower corridor.
"This new referendum is so broadly written that it could jeopardize other major renewable energy projects in Maine, including solar, wind, and offshore wind projects, threatening Maine’s ability to meet our carbon reduction goals," he said in a statement. "We can’t afford to further politicize Maine’s energy needs every time we want to invest in a major renewable energy project."
What's more, Breed argues that opposition to the hydropower corridor is being funded mostly by the fossil fuel industry, with the intent of killing green energy projects.
The project has already cleared several regulatory hurdles, including approval by Maine's Land Use Planning Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection. But it still needs a final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently reviewing the plans.
Howard said she doubts the project would win final approval amid the renewed push to put the question before the state's voters.
"If they go ahead with any construction while this referendum is pending, their foreign shareholders are taking a huge financial risk," she said.