Opponents debate merits of Maine hydro project

Ballot question set in motion by Mass. power contract

TWO BAY STATE REFERENDUM questions will appear on the ballot this fall in Massachusetts, along with a third in Maine.

The referendum in Maine can be considered a Massachusetts question because it seeks to block a nearly $1 billion power line that is being paid for by Bay State utility customers. The fight over the power line, which would carry hydroelectricity produced in Quebec to Lewiston, Maine, has become one of the top political fights in Maine.

Two officials from the opposing camps – Serge Abergel, director of external relations for Hydro-Quebec, and Adam Cote, an attorney representing opponents of the project – laid out their positions on The Codcast.

Cote said the ballot question is already the most expensive in state history, and it’s only August. He insists polling shows his side doing well despite being heavily outspent.

Abergel says the hydroelectricity his company produces will back electricity produced using natural gas out of the market, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New England, and provide backup power for other more variable renewables, such as wind and solar.

“Maine, like Massachusetts, like the rest of New England, needs to do a transition to renewable energy,” Abergel said. Hydro-Quebec recently sweetened the deal for Maine by agreeing to provide hydroelectricity to the state at a discounted price.

Abergel said the chief opposition to the project is coming from the owners of natural gas plants that stand to lose business with the importation of more hydroelectricity. “Our competitors from the gas industry do not want to see us there. This is a big part of the opposition you see in Maine,” he said. “It’s clean energy versus dirty energy.”

Abergel acknowledged many Mainers are also concerned about power lines making their way through the woods of western Maine, but he says the right of way is only 50 feet wide and the number of trees that would be cut down are less than what is logged each year.

“We’re not pretending this line is invisible, but there is lots that has been done to minimize its impact,” Abergel said. “The benefits in our view and in the view of the environmental community far outweigh the impact.”

Cote said the owners of the natural gas plants are his clients, but he said the coalition seeking to block the power line is much bigger than just those firms. He said the coalition includes the Natural Resources Council of Maine, sportsmen groups, and people wary of Central Maine Power, which will actually build the power line. “There’s just not a lot of trust there,” he said.

Cote said most of the opposition to the power line is coming from people who think the state is getting a raw deal hosting an extension cord running from Quebec into New England. He noted Massachusetts originally awarded the contract to a New Hampshire utility, but regulators in that state shot it down. He said Massachusetts could have gone with a project in Vermont that would have buried the power line under Lake Champlain and underground, but instead chose the Maine option because it was cheaper.

“It’s wildly unpopular in Maine,” he said. “They’re in big trouble right now. This is more likely than not to be defeated in Maine.”

Echoing a theme raised during the approval process for the project in Massachusetts, Cote accused Hydro-Quebec of playing a shell game with its hydroelectricity. He said the electricity that will go to Massachusetts would have gone to another customer if the contract was never signed, so there is no net reduction in greenhouse gases.

Abergel said the claim that the project won’t reduce emissions is untrue. He said Hydro-Quebec has been building up its dam and reservoir capacity for 20 years and now has plenty of surplus power that it wants to sell.

He also dismissed claims by the company’s opponents in Maine that it is improper for his utility, which is owned by the government of Quebec, to try to influence an election in Maine. The opponents say Hydro-Quebec is taking advantage of a loophole in state campaign law that bars foreign involvement in an individual candidate’s election but is silent on referendums.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Abergel said his company didn’t ask for the referendum, which he described as unfriendly to business. He noted the company has spent $6 million on the campaign already, which cuts into the firm’s profits. But he said Hydro-Quebec and Central Maine Power, which is also spending heavily, signed a contract with Massachusetts and have no choice but to fulfill the agreement.

Abergel said the company has to defend itself and its project. “It’s not about Russian influence in your presidential election,” he said. “We feel we have a duty to inform people of the facts.”