The changing of the guard in Washington is already having a huge impact on Canada’s energy exports to the United States.
In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden reversed Donald Trump’s decision to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which was meant to carry more Alberta crude oil as far as the U.S. Gulf Coast. Previously blocked by former president Barack Obama, the renewed cancellation caused consternation in Alberta, which has been hit hard by falling oil prices and limited access to export markets.
Now a 20-year contract to supply surplus Hydro-Québec electricity to Massachusetts and Maine is in jeopardy, because the latter has agreed to hold a referendum that could cancel a $1-billion transmission line through the state.
Quebec Premier François Legault likes to call his province — with its 40-terawatt-hour surplus of cheap hydroelectric power — the “battery of the northeast.”
A terawatt-hour is a trillion watts consumed in a one-hour period — roughly the amount of electricity used by New York City in one week.
Quebec’s previous Liberal government agreed to provide 9.45 terawatt-hours of power a year to Massachusetts for 20 years.
After Legault became premier, he pitched the sale of electricity from Quebec to Ontario Premier Doug Ford as a cheaper alternative to refurbishing Ontario’s nuclear reactors. Ford declined the offer, so now Quebec is bidding on a similar long-term contract to supply renewable power to New York State.
With the Massachusetts contract, problems arose in getting the line approved. That line would run through Maine, requiring two federal and four state regulatory approvals, as well as regulatory approvals in Quebec.
Maine was the second choice. The $1-billion line was originally supposed to cross New Hampshire, but, after lengthy hearings in that state, the so-called Northern Pass route was rejected on the grounds that the unsightly transmission towers would do damage to the state’s tourism industry.
The 233-kilometre power link now faces the same NIMBY — “Not in my Backyard” — pressure from opponents in Maine whose push for a referendum on the project has been successful.Final approval of the transmission line, called New England Clean Energy Connect, came in the form of a presidential permit issued on Jan. 15 by the outgoing Trump administration.
A previous attempt to hold a referendum on the line was rejected as unconstitutional by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, following a US$20-million campaign launched by both the project’s opponents and supporters: environmentalists, who favour wind and solar power; and natural-gas companies, who would lose out if the state switched to hydro power.
When first elected in 2018, Maine’s current Democratic governor, Janet Mills, said she had “serious questions and concerns” about the line meant to carry electricity through Maine to Massachusetts.
Mills worried it would create “a dramatic change to the landscape of our state, disrupting deer-wintering areas, streams, and other important habitats, with no apparent commitment to any serious environmental mitigation.”
Hydro-Québec responded by offering the state: a US$258-million package that included 500,000 megawatt-hours a year of electricity for 20 years; a discount for consumers; and US$10 million for electric-vehicle charging stations.
Now a supporter of the project, Mills has vetoed two bills to block the transmission line.
The referendum, to be held on Nov. 2, proposes retroactive legislation to undo approvals by various Maine regulators, and stipulates that two-thirds-majority votes would be required in both houses of the state legislature to overturn a law to halt construction of the line.
Hydro-Québec spokesman Marc-Antoine Pouliot said work on the line is underway and won’t stop because of the planned referendum.
Pouliot would not say if Hydro-Québec or its American partners would take legal action to overturn the referendum, noting the line has received all the necessary approvals in the U.S.
Hydro-Québec has existing export contracts with Ontario, New Brunswick, and Vermont, which receives most of its power from Quebec. It also sells surplus electricity on the spot market.
Now it wants long-term contracts with Massachusetts and New York.
“It is never simple,” Pouliot said. “There is lots of competition,” including from natural-gas producers and wind energy.
Maine currently gets less than 1,000 megawatts from wind power, but it’s been estimated it has the potential to get as much at 70,000 megawatts on land and another 95,000 megawatts offshore.
Pouliot said Hydro-Québec and its partners are running advertisements in Maine to explain the long-term benefits of the transmission line to consumers.