Organizers of an initiative that would require the Maine Legislature to sign off on transmission line projects have gathered enough signatures for the measure to be considered in a statewide vote in November, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows confirmed Monday.
The measure is aimed at crippling the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line project, which would bring Canadian hydroelectric power through Maine to Massachusetts. The project, known as NECEC for short, is a joint venture between Central Maine Power parent company Avangrid and Canadian hydroelectric utility Hydro-Quebec.
An interest group representing the project said immediately after the announcement that it would conduct its own review of the signatures, in an attempt to overturn the results. A previous referendum effort to overturn the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s prior approval of the corridor project collected enough valid signatures to be certified, but it was later struck down by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that overturning a regulatory body’s decisions is outside the scope of what a referendum can legally do.
Construction on the $1 billion, 145-mile transmission project already has begun along an existing CMP corridor, but court action is holding up work on an undeveloped stretch near the Quebec border.
Proponents submitted 95,622 signatures last month, and 80,506 of them were validated, Bellows’ office said. A minimum of 63,067 signatures from registered Maine voters is required for a statewide referendum question to be placed on the ballot.
The Maine Legislature now will consider the initiative. Legislators can choose to enact the bill as written or to send it to a statewide vote on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The legislation seeks to require lawmaker approval for the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines. It also provides that transmission lines crossing or utilizing public lands must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature.
The measure would prohibit the construction of certain transmission lines in the upper Kennebec Valley region. The provision would apply retroactively to Sept. 16, 2020.
The bill also would require the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature for any use of public lands for transmission lines and facilities and certain other projects. That provision would apply retroactively to Sept. 16, 2014.
Tom Saviello, a former legislator and organizer behind the signature drive with the No CMP Corridor group, said he knew opposition would be strong.
“But I never anticipated the level of support we would receive,” he said. “This year we collected more signatures in less time, and we did it during a pandemic and the height of Maine’s winter.”
But Jon Breen, executive director of Clean Energy Matters, said large energy companies that would be hurt by competing with NECEC’s power paid more than $1 million for signature-gathering efforts. He noted that NECEC has received all major permits and that 275 Maine residents are already on the job building the project.
“The last thing we should be doing in the middle of a global pandemic is issuing more pink slips to Mainers,” Breen said, “because fossil fuel companies don’t like competing with renewable energy.”