Opponents debate merits of Maine hydro project

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.

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.”

BRUCE MOHL


FROM COMMONWEALTH

Key COVID barometer takes jump. The governor cites cluster “lapses in judgment.”

It’s a good thing the Legislature extended its session because there’s a long list of unfinished business awaiting action.

The death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is vacated by an appeals court.

A survey shows the impact of the pandemic on immigrant households.

Opinion:  Joan Fitrzgerald of Northeastern University says Brookline had the right idea but there’s a better way to get fossil fuel use out of buildings….Michael Segal traces some of the personnel connections between the Trump and Nixon White Houses….Free the vaccine, say Chris Noble, Rishi Khettry, Karry Muzzey, and Jack Killion….Imari Paris Jeffries and Luc Schuster say a minimum guaranteed income is a viable solution to poverty….Kishore Varanasi and Sae Kim of CBT Architects start to reimagine cities post-COVID….The state should play an interventionist role in the sale of freight operator Pan Am Railways, TransitMatters says….Union official Tim Foley says health care heroes deserve support.


FROM AROUND THE WEB             

BEACON HILL

The Legislature sends Gov. Charlie Baker a $1.8 billion information technology bond bill. But a police reform bill remains bottled up in conference committee negotiations. (MassLive)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Some public health experts say the state’s tracking system isn’t up to the task of quickly identifying emerging coronavirus clusters. (Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, says the pandemic has entered a new phase, as cases and deaths rise and COVID-19 is now in both urban and rural areas. (WBUR)

The White House is exploring measures it might take unilaterally to address the economic dislocation caused by the pandemic as Congress fails to reach agreement on extending federal benefits. (Washington Post)

Two NASA astronauts splash down in the Gulf of Mexico, completing a two-month test flight by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. (Associated Press)

ELECTIONS

Joe Kennedy, who denounced “dark money” and tried unsuccessfully to get Ed Markey to sign a “People’s Pledge” to keep it out of their Senate showdown, will be getting a $1.6 million boost from ad spending by an outside super PAC set up to support him. (Boston Globe)

US Rep. Seth Moulton is criticized about the federal coronavirus response in the first 6th Congressional District primary debate. (The Salem News)

The Boston Globe endorsed Jake Auchincloss, one of nine Democrats vying in the September 1 primary for the Fourth Congressional District seat being vacated by Joe Kennedy.

New York City has not done well processing mail-in ballots from its June 23 primary, a cautionary tale that some say is the “canary in the coal mine” warning of potential disaster with the November election. (New York Times)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Lord & Taylor files for bankruptcy. (NPR) So does Tailored Brands, the owner of Men’s Wearhouse. (Reuters)

A Massachusetts tech sector organization plans to redouble efforts to bring more blacks and Latinos into the field. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

The push to open schools this fall is likely to fail. (The Atlantic)

A number of colleges nationwide are reversing course on plans to bring students back to campus in the fall, but so far Berklee College of Music is the only one of the Boston area to do so. (Boston Globe)

Community colleges can provide an affordable option for students this year as classes go online and students have less ability to get the full “college experience.” (Eagle-Tribune)

ARTS/CULTURE

The Provincetown Museum has reopened and features a new permanent exhibit — its first in 40 years — that curators say attempts to get “right” the story of the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Pilgrims who arrived there 400 years ago. (Cape Cod Times)

TRANSPORTATION

Records show black and Latino riders are cited disproportionately for fare evasion at MBTA subway stations. (Boston Globe)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Proposals to improve the safety of the state’s natural gas system stall on Beacon Hill. (The Salem News)

A Boston Herald editorial decries the federal protection of seals, which it says has contributed to their proliferation off Cape Cod and the presence of sharks that prey on them, but doesn’t offer any argument to refute claims that any loosening of protections would prove futile in reducing their numbers.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A Globe editorial calls for an end to the federal death penalty in the wake of an appeals court decision throwing out the death sentence handed to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. President Trump says the government must seek to reimpose the sentence on Tsarnaev in a new penalty-phase trial. (Boston Herald)

One gun is linked to three 1972 murders and two remain unsolved. The victims include a witness in an Agawam bank robbery case, a Springfield area mob hit, and a father of nine in New York City. Stephanie Barry of the Springfield Republican spent years researching the cases, and did a deep dive into the New York case and its Western Massachusetts ties. (MassLive)

The pandemic and racial protests are triggering a surge in applications for firearms licenses. (Telegram & Gazette)

Hingham’s “thin blue line” flag, put up to honor slain Police Sgt. Michael Chesna but taken down amid a controversy over whether it is associated with racism, is now going on a statewide tour. (Brockton Enterprise)

Jaw-dropper: ICYMI The Sunday Globe reported that Methuen’s police chief made $326,000 last year — and thinks he’s underpaid.