Opponents of a plan to build a 145-mile transmission line through the forests of western Maine are turning their attention to other agencies now that the governor has signed an agreement endorsing the project that is before state regulators.

Gov. Janet Mills held a news conference Thursday to explain her decision, holding a cube of carbon encased in plastic to emphasize the cost of relying on fossil fuels while detailing the benefits of Central Maine Power Co.’s controversial proposal to build the line to carry hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.

Mills’ office, a utility watchdog, business, labor and some environmental groups signed off Wednesday on an agreement over the line, which will run 145 miles from the Canadian border to Lewiston cut through a 52-mile section of Maine’s North Woods. The governor said $258 million in economic and environmental benefits of the New England Clean Energy Connect project led her to support the transmission line.

But opponents aren’t buying it, saying they are now hoping to influence agencies other than the Public Utilities Commission that need to approve the project.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine and a citizens group, Say No to NECEC, say the agreement struck between CMP and stakeholders does not offer enough benefits to offset the environmental impact of the project. They are focusing lobbying efforts on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission. Both state agencies need to issue permits to allow the project to go forward and are planning public hearings in Farmington in early April.

Sandra Howard, the director of the citizen group, said the agreement suggests that “if they throw enough money at the problem, they can buy approval.”

Stop the Corridor, another opposition group, sent an email to its members Thursday alerting them of Mills’ support of the project, calling it “the first significant error of her new administration” and encouraging them to flood Mills’ office with phone calls and emails.

‘OPEN THE DOOR’

Gov. Janet Mills holds a cube of carbon to emphasize the climate implications that informed her endorsement of a deal for a proposed 145-mile power line from Quebec to Massachusetts. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

The agreement Mills announced Wednesday was filed Thursday with the Public Utilities Commission, the agency that will decide whether to award a permit to allow the roughly $1 billion NECEC project to go forward. The deal is expected to help increase the likelihood of permit approval when the PUC takes up the matter in early spring.

Besides the other state agencies, the project would need federal approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy.

Mills said the agreement with CMP provides a “middle ground” between opponents of the NECEC project and those who favor it.

“We can’t say no to every single project,” Mills said at the Portland International Jetport on Thursday before flying to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Governors Association. “We have to open the door.”

Mills said the project will boost Maine’s economy by nearly $100 million, provide hundreds of jobs, cut carbon emissions by 3 million metric tons a year and lower Maine’s electricity costs by reducing demand on other electricity providers in the region.

The agreement announced this week with CMP, which will construct and maintain the line, and Hydro-Quebec, which will produce the electricity at its dams north of the border, also provides millions of dollars for programs such as electric vehicle purchases and charging stations and some relief for Maine electricity ratepayers, even though none of the energy generated by Hydro-Quebec will go to Maine customers.

Mills said she was swayed by an economic analysis of the deal and some of the ancillary benefits, such as expanding broadband internet access to largely rural western Maine.

A major environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation, also signed off on the agreement.

But Dylan Vorhees, the climate and clean energy director for the NRCM, said the environmental benefits are being overstated by supporters. The benefits, he said, “are not worth the impact on Maine’s environment” by cutting a wide corridor for transmission lines through the woods.

Vorhees acknowledged that an agreement with the governor’s signature should help NECEC secure a permit from the PUC, but said the NRCM has other opportunities to try to stop the project by making its case before other permitting agencies.

A BROADER VIEW

Some supporters of the project are taking a more holistic view, looking at the regional implications of the line beyond Maine’s borders.

Greg Cunningham, the vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s clean energy and climate change program, said shifting part of Massachusetts’ market to clean energy will provide environmental benefits for the entire region.

“The biggest threat to Maine forests today is climate change,” he said.

Cunningham said the groups involved had been negotiating over the package for months, but the talks accelerated after Mills was elected and officials from Hydro-Quebec got involved. The Conservation Law Foundation had opposed a prior plan to run the line through New Hampshire, but took part in negotiations over the project in Maine.

“The fact that we now have a governor in Maine that isn’t a climate-change denier only helps,” Cunningham said, referencing former Gov. Paul LePage’s anti-solar and anti-wind power policies. Hydro-Quebec was also able to bring a substantial amount of money to programs for Mainers, including one that will help underwrite the costs of heat pumps – heating systems that are more energy efficient and less polluting than oil-fired furnaces, he said.

Acadia Center, a Rockport-based environmental group that promotes clean and renewable energy, said it, too, supports the transmission project. It also cited the overall environmental benefits contained in the agreement.

Barry Hobbins, the state’s public advocate who represents ratepayers in PUC matters, said his office endorsed the agreement, noting CMP’s commitment to create a $50 million fund to help low-income Mainers with their electric bills.

CMP set up a similar fund for Massachusetts residents, Hobbins said, and he insisted on “not a penny less” for Mainers.

Like the Conservation Law Foundation’s Cunningham, Hobbins said Hydro-Quebec’s decision to get involved in negotiations changed the tenor of the talks and put the focus on the environmental benefits of shifting at least some of New England’s electric consumption to a renewable and clean source. Hydro-Quebec was not a party to the agreement, but provided information during the negotiation process.

“The theme was that this was a game-changer when it came to global warming,” Hobbins said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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