What Maine voters should know about Question 1

Maine Public

In this week’s Pulse: Parsing the arguments, cash and claims of Question 1.

The debate over the Central Maine Power corridor has been a complex, three-year odyssey of regulatory and court disputes, pitting national and multinational energy corporations against one another in a battle for market share and profits.

Question 1 is a byproduct of this power struggle. Maine voters could determine the winner.

That’s why both sides of Question 1 have so far dumped a record-breaking $60 million on election advertising on a mosaic of misleading and contradictory claims to make Maine voters believe, at least on some level, that the corridor fight is about something other than competing energy giants’ financial interests.

Corridor supporters claim the project, also known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region, while opponents say it’s a “greenwashing” scheme that will sabotage real climate change initiatives. Opponents say it will destroy the unspoiled wilderness of the North Woods, while supporters say halting construction will hobble the economic recovery from the pandemic. Corridor supporters say the language of Question 1 is a power-grabbing scheme by Maine politicians who might later use it to take Mainers’ guns, while opponents say the corridor will yield profits for Massachusetts, and do little for Maine.

Several of these claims lack context. Some are misleading. Some of them, such as the gun-grabbing claims, are outright farcical.

This week’s Pulse focuses exclusively on Question 1 and attempts to provide a fuller picture of the debate, while addressing some of the advertising claims.

What is the corridor and why is it in Maine?

The corridor is a 145-mile high-voltage transmission line cutting through western Maine that will send electricity produced by hydroelectric dams in Quebec into the New England grid. The project is the result of a contract between Massachusetts, Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec. CMP will build the line - with Massachusetts ratepayers footing the $1 billion bill - while Hydro-Quebec will generate the electricity.

CMP corridor construction
Brian Bechard
Site clearing for Central Maine Power's corridor in May 2021.

The contract was signed in 2018 and it was spurred by the Bay State’s ambitious fight against climate change. In 2016, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law requiring the state to draw 1,200 megawatts of electricity from renewable onshore sources. Onshore wind and solar were unlikely to meet that target; only a handful of the largest wind farms in the world generate 1,200 megawatts or more. Additionally, Massachusetts’ most consistent wind resource is near its small, congested coastline, and large-scale solar generation also requires a lot of land.

So to meet its goals, Massachusetts sought to import hydropower from Hydro-Quebec, the government-owned utility that generates about 95% of the Canadian province’s electricity. Hydro-Quebec has long eyed exporting power from its massive dams into the Northeastern U.S. to boost its sole shareholder, the government of Quebec.

The Maine agreement was preceded by an attempt to route Quebec hydropower into Massachusetts through New Hampshire, but the so-called Northern Pass project was blocked by a regulating agency there. Another potential contingency lies in Vermont, where permits were secured in 2018 to route a transmission line almost parallel to a corridor that will soon be used to pump Hydro-Quebec electricity to upstate New York. The Vermont project costs about $600 million more than the one in Maine.

What would Question 1 do to the project?

At its essence, Question 1 asks voters to halt construction of the corridor, although you wouldn’t know it from the pro-corridor group’s advertising. But more about that later.

The question reads:

Do you want to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and to require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactively to 2020, and to require the Legislature, retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public land?

The question seems more complex. That’s because it attempts to do three things, each specific to transmission line projects in the state.

First, it specifically targets the 50-plus miles of power line construction in the Upper Kennebec region, which is where the new portion of the corridor is located (the rest is along an existing transmission corridor owned by CMP). This, in theory, would kill the corridor project.

The question also calls for the Legislature to have the final say in approving similar transmission projects anywhere in the state. And finally, it would require a supermajority of the Legislature to approve any transmission project using public lands going back to 2014.

The public lands provision stems from a dispute specific to the CMP project. While CMP owns nearly all of the 145-mile corridor, about a mile of it crosses public lands through a lease first negotiated by the LePage administration in 2014 and renegotiated in 2020 by the Mills administration.

But the $65,000 lease was recently revoked by a Superior Court judge, who ruled that the state conveniently skipped over an impact assessment that likely would have triggered legislative review. Part of Question 1 would ensure that any transmission project crossing public lands - including the CMP corridor - must be approved by a supermajority of the Legislature.

Who is behind the Yes on 1 campaign?

There is real grassroots opposition to the corridor. It includes abutters to the project, as well people who hunt, fish and hike near it. There are environmental and conservation groups who worry about its ecological and aesthetic impacts.

And there are people who just don’t like CMP.

But most of the money from the Yes on 1 side - nearly $13 million - comes from electricity providers who stand to lose if the project starts pumping hydropower into the regional grid.

Essentially, new, voluminous electricity supply means less money for existing generators. In this case, some of the generators are Maine-based, but others are elsewhere in the region.

The opposition groups include Mainers for Local Power and No CMP Corridor. The latter group is made up of mostly grassroots activists, people directly affected by the corridor, or who are simply opposed to it. It has received financial support from Mainers for Local Power, which is mostly funded by Florida-based NextERA Energy Resources and Texas-based Vistra Energy Corp. and Calpine Corp. All three companies own energy assets in Maine.

NextERA, however, is the bigger player in the corridor opposition. It’s pumped roughly $7 million into Question 1 since this summer. Its interest goes beyond defending Wyman Station, the 610-megawatt, oil-fired plant it owns on Cousins Island in Yarmouth. NextERA is also protecting its interests at Seabrook Station in New Hampshire. The nuclear facility is the largest electricity generator in the region and lower-priced hydropower from Quebec represents direct competition.

That’s why CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, and NextERA are locked in a dispute over delayed upgrades at a Seabrook substation that are needed to allow the additional power from the Maine corridor project onto the regional grid.

Who is behind the No on 1 campaign?

The pro-corridor interests are straightforward.

Hydro-Quebec’s 2019 annual report described the deal with CMP and Massachusetts as the largest long-term sales contract in its history.

That’s why Hydro-Quebec has spent nearly $15 million advocating for the Maine corridor project, including $8 million this year. It is taking advantage of a loophole in Maine law that allows companies owned by foreign governments to spend on ballot campaigns. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, a supporter of the corridor project, this year vetoed legislation that would have closed the foreign-influence loophole.

CMP and its parent company Avangrid have a lot riding on the project. They’ve spent $350 million so far on construction and permitting. In addition, the companies have spent more than $34 million trying to defeat Question 1 via two ballot question committees, Clean Energy Matters and Mainers for Fair Laws.

The division of electioneering labor highlights the company’s electoral strategy of targeting different voting constituencies by hiring local political consultants. CMP’s efforts in the campaign closely resemble its lobbying efforts in the Legislature, where it rarely loses policy fights.

The ad claims

“Retroactivity”

CMP’s Mainers for Fair Laws group has focused almost exclusively on the “retroactive” language in Question 1. These ads make almost no mention of the corridor and instead focus on traditional campaign bogeymen: power-hungry politicians and their devious self-interest.

“Question 1 would empower politicians to impose laws retroactively,” one mailer claims, adding, “And it could empower politicians to target your business, your community, or even you for something that happened legally in the past.”

mailers sample.jpg
Steve Mistler
A sampling of political mailers sent to Maine voters on Question 1.

Another mailer by the same group asserts that Question 1 “empowers politicians and out-of-staters with a new set of tools that can be used to target gun owners.”

This narrative lacks important context.

First of all, Maine legislators can already pass retroactive laws and they’ve done so more than 150 times in the past two decades. Doing so requires, in most cases, a majority vote of the Legislature and the governor’s approval, or absent that, enough lawmaker support to override a gubernatorial veto.

Second, Question 1 is specific to high-voltage transmission lines and other “such projects” on public lands.

Third, the gun-grabbing claim isn’t just misleading, it ignores a political reality in Maine: Gun restrictions are kryptonite to most elected officials here, which is why gun laws in this state have historically trended toward a more absolutist view of the 2nd Amendment.

“Massachusetts profits at Maine’s expense”

This is an oft-repeated claim by Mainers for Local Power, the anti-corridor group funded by in- and out-of-state energy interests. While it’s true that Maine electricity ratepayers will only see a modest reduction if the project moves forward - about 9 cents a month - the claim that Massachusetts will “profit” is misleading. Massachusetts ratepayers are paying for the corridor project.

“Mainers know that surging oil prices mean higher heating costs this winter. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Vote NO on Question 1 and reduce Maine’s dependence on dirty, expensive fossil fuels.”

This claim in a digital ad by Hydro-Quebec’s ballot committee would have voters believe that the corridor will reduce heating oil prices.

While it’s true that the corridor could lessen the region’s dependence on fossil fuels, that dependence is specific to electricity generation, not the home heating oil that most Mainers rely upon. Hydro-Quebec could accurately claim that a stipulation agreement between CMP and the state will result in $15 million in subsidies for heat pumps that could theoretically reduce dependence on heating oil. However, that subsidy is not nearly enough to address Mainers’ reliance on home heating oil.

“CMP’s Corridor would bulldoze a special place just to send power to Massachusetts.”

Mainers for Local Power has used this claim in several print and TV ads. It’s true that CMP is allowed by its permit to clear up to a 150-foot-wide corridor through 53 miles of forest. There will be impacts to the area's ecology and wildlife. This is why some conservation groups oppose it. It’s also why the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine rescinded its earlier endorsement of the project.

But describing that area as pristine or untouched is misleading. Commercial timber harvesting has occurred for generations in the area. That’s not to say that the corridor won’t have ecological impacts. State and federal regulators acknowledge that it will, but those same regulators have also approved the project.

“Big oil and gas” oppose the project

This claim is often made to discredit opponents of the project while also bolstering CMP’s assertion that the corridor will play a key role in reducing the region’s dependence on fossil fuels to generate electricity. It’s true that a reliable slug of hydropower poses a big threat to fossil fuel generators in the region, including Calpine and Vistra, which own natural gas assets here. It’s also true that NextERA’s Wyman Station is an oil-fired plant. But NextERA is also one of the largest solar and wind generators in the world. Also, its main interest in the corridor isn’t Wyman Station, but Seabrook, which produces emissions-free nuclear power.

“The (corridor) ... will reduce the use of fossil fuels, cutting more than three million metric tons of dirty emissions each year.”

This claim highlights one of the most vexing questions about the corridor, and one that will likely weigh heavily on the minds of voters who care about renewable energy and climate change.

The answer has divided typically aligned environmental groups. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Acadia Center support the corridor project because they believe that it will reduce power derived from fossil fuel generators in the region. Those same groups joined the governor’s energy office and the Maine Public Advocate to reach an agreement with CMP that includes $260 million for heat pumps, energy efficiency subsidies and electric vehicle charging stations.

Corridor supporters frequently cite studies by London Economics and Daymark Energy Advisors, a firm hired by CMP, projecting that the project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3 million metric tons annually in New England. But critics contend that those studies overstate the fossil fuel displacement the project will create.

That’s why the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Council of Maine have come out in opposition to the corridor project. Both commissioned a 2018 report that found it will have no benefit on climate change.

Parsing the arguments from both sides is complex and involves Hydro-Quebec’s current power generation capacity and its ability to draw and export fuel from non-hydropower sources, including gas-fired plants in New Brunswick or upstate New York. Corridor opponents dispute Hydro-Quebec’s generation capacity and contend it has the ability to blend the sources of its electricity and pass it off as renewable power, also known as “greenwashing.”

Hydro-Quebec rejects this argument and says that it often has so much stored water and not enough demand that it has to “spill” its reservoirs. It also says that it has enough existing dam capacity to not only power the Maine corridor, but also the proposed project through New York.

In addition to Hydro-Quebec’s generation capacity, there’s also debate over whether it’s hydropower is the greenhouse gas mitigator that it claims. The dispute centers on Hydro-Quebec’s damming of rivers and flooding forests and wetlands and resulting in the release of stored carbon and methane - both greenhouse gases.

In 2019, Democratic Sen. Brownie Carson, of Harpswell, introduced a bill that would have studied the project’s climate change impacts by hiring an independent firm to model its effect on the regional grid.

The proposal ultimately died after extreme lobbying pressure from CMP, which framed the legislation as a bid by opponents to derail the project.

What happens if Question 1 passes?

Most likely a court fight. Because CMP has begun construction of the project and acquired permits, it might assert in court that it has vested rights to finish it.

Opponents, however, are committed to killing the project.

The referendum is still consequential even if its result is litigated. Maine voters will finally have their say on Nov. 2 and undoubtedly shape how the corridor is viewed and discussed by supporters and opponents.

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  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-10-22 13:05:06 -0400