You shouldn’t draw too many lessons in the immediate aftermath of an election. But with a vote as conclusive as the 19-point landslide victory for the opponents of a western Maine transmission line, some messages can’t be ignored.
It should be clear by now that a lot of Mainers don’t trust Central Maine Power. The state’s largest electric utility and its owner, the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, are viewed as outsiders bent on extracting profits from Maine. A record of long and frequent outages, low customer satisfaction and a billing fiasco have shaped how Mainers view CMP.
The company’s poor reputation showed up in the way that the anti corridor “Yes on 1” campaign used the CMP brand in virtually every statement, advertisement and mailer they issued, making sure that every voter knew which company was behind the proposed $1 billion project.
We also saw it in the way that the “No on 1” campaign all but abandoned its positive messaging about a project that is supposed to bring renewable energy to the regional power grid. Instead it focused on dubious “slippery slope” arguments about dangerous retroactive laws. CMP could not make an environmental case for their project in a state that generally supports environmental protection because the company has no credibility on that front after years of fighting clean energy projects in the State House.
This is a problem, but not just for CMP. As we fight climate change, the challenge for Maine and the world is replacing power generated from burning fossil fuels with renewable energy while we transition to electric vehicles and home heating systems. If public trust is so low for the state’s biggest electric utility, who will build the infrastructure it will take to enter a zero carbon future?
It’s not just CMP that has lost the public trust. The Maine Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection both issued permits to the corridor plan saying that the plan’s benefits outweighed its costs. And Gov. Janet Mills endorsed the plan and publicly voted “no” on the referendum.
With their votes, the people overruled the PUC and the DEP with their staffs of experts. A significant number of Mainers in every part of the state did not believe that the regulators had their interests in mind had their interests in mind or that their decision could be trusted. If regulators can’t recapture the public’s trust, it’s hard to imagine how the state will build the infrastructure we will need to make the kind of changes necessary to fight climate change.
There may be other factors at play in this referendum that may also have contributed to the lopsided result. It should come as no surprise that Mainers in every part of the state value the Maine woods and don’t want to see it despoiled. And a lot of people in Maine don’t care for Massachusetts and resented the idea that we should bear the environmental cost while they get the perceived benefit.
But it would be a mistake to write off the victory of Question 1 as a case of tough political circumstances unique to this project.
To fight climate change, we are going to have to build infrastructure. Grassroots organizations can stop projects, but they can’t build them. It will take government and industry working together to carry out the clean energy transition. Without public confidence in these institutions, nothing can get done.
As the costs of a warming climate mount, doing nothing is not an option.