Mass. becomes dirty word in Maine referendum fight
Bay State hydro deal irks those opposed to power line
CORPORATE SURROGATES for Massachusetts have spent close to $17 million so far battling a referendum question in Maine that seeks to block the importation of hydroelectricity from Quebec using a power line running through wilderness areas in the western part of the state.
The referendum battle is in some ways the dark underbelly of a push for clean energy in Massachusetts. Two years ago, after regulators in New Hampshire nixed a similar power line running through the White Mountains, Massachusetts struck a deal with a Maine utility and Hydro-Quebec to run a 145-mile transmission line from the Quebec border down to Lewiston, where it would feed into the regional power grid.
The deal would give Massachusetts relatively cheap renewable energy while leaving all of the environmental impact in Maine. Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said many residents in his state are seething with anger at how Massachusetts could force this unwanted project on them.
“The Massachusetts component of this project really gets in people’s craw,” Didisheim said. “We’re just the landscape across which this extension cord will go.”
The power line through Maine won a key permit from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in May 2019, a decision that was upheld this year on an appeal to the courts. The referendum question seeks to overturn the commission’s decision and deny the permit.
The key players behind the project are Central Maine Power, a utility owned by Avangrid Renewables, which in turn is owned by a Spanish company, and Hydro-Quebec, a utility owned by the province of Quebec. A group calling itself Clean Energy Matters has spent $10.5 million to back the project and defeat the referendum – with almost all the money coming from Avangrid and Central Maine Power. A second group, called Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership, has spent $6.2 million, with all of the money coming from Hydro-Quebec.
The message of project proponents is centered around the economic and environmental benefits of the project. Building the power line will generate 1,600 construction jobs, increase the state’s gross domestic product by $573 million, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New England by 3 million metric tons. There are also benefits tied directly to the project — $6 million for education programs, $140 million for electric rate relief, $200 million for the energy grid, and $15 million each for electric vehicle infrastructure, heat pumps, and broadband infrastructure in western Maine.
“The entire cost of the project will be paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers. And that’s not just us saying it, it’s how the law was written. Period,” according to the website of Clean Energy Matters.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine said the $16.8 million spent to date by project proponents far exceeds the $9.4 million record amount spent in 2018 by out-of-state casino companies seeking support for a casino in Maine. The environmental group said the money has gone for advertising, polling, lawyers, private detectives, political consultants, and an opposition research firm.
All of that money and the additional funds that are likely to be spent between now and November is coming indirectly from ratepayers of three Massachusetts utilities – Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil. The Bangor Daily News has reported Hydro-Quebec stands to make $12.4 billion and Central Maine Power $2.9 billion over the 20-year life of the contracts with the three utilities.
Jon Breed, executive director of Clean Energy Matters, said the opposition to the power line through Maine is coming primarily from three out-of-state companies – Nextera Energy, Calpine, and Vistra – operating gas-fired power plants in the state. Breed said even the Natural Resources Council of Maine has received some money from a fossil fuel-funded-group called Stop the Corridor, which refuses to disclose its source of funding.
The hydro deal has divided the environmental community, which believes clean energy is desperately needed to combat climate change but worries about the long-term environmental and economic benefits of hydro. Elizabeth Henry, the executive director of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, calls the hydro project a “modest step” in the right direction during a climate crisis.
“But our future can’t be powering New England with Canadian hydro,” she said. “Our future is powering the region with offshore wind and solar.”Maine Superior Court Judge Thomas Warren on June 29 issued a decision allowing the referendum on the ballot question to proceed, even though he appeared to share the concerns of Maine’s secretary of state that a referendum overturning a project-specific regulatory decision upheld by the courts could face a serious constitutional challenge on separation-of-powers grounds.
Warren, however, said he couldn’t preempt the holding of the referendum, which means the project could theoretically be voted down by voters and then be thrown out as unconstitutional by a judge.