Opponents of Central Maine Power Co.’s planned $1 billion transmission corridor through western Maine say they have gathered enough valid voter signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot that would seek to overturn the project’s approval by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

But some legal experts question whether the referendum could overturn decades of precedent set by independent regulatory bodies designed to make decisions outside the political arena.

The opposition group, No CMP Corridor, delivered more than 75,000 signatures to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office on Monday morning to get the referendum question on the ballot. Groups must gather at least 63,067 valid signatures to get a referendum question on the ballot in Maine.

With the signatures, Maine people “no longer have to sit back while unelected bureaucrats call the shots on this project,” Tom Saviello, a former state lawmaker from Wilton and coordinator of the signature drive, said at a news conference in front of the State House.

“As a whole, Mainers want the opportunity to weigh in on this project, and now I’m proud to announce they will have that opportunity,” Saviello said.

If approved by voters, the referendum is intended force the PUC to reverse its May 2019 decision that the corridor project is in the interests of the state, thus halting any construction on the project to build a transmission line to carry hydroelectric power to Massachusetts.

However, passage of the referendum would put the state in uncharted legal waters, said Bill Harwood, an attorney at Verrill Dana in Portland with more than 30 years of experience in public utilities. Harwood does not represent any of the parties to the transmission corridor issue.

“I’ve never seen a case where a PUC order has been so specifically and directly proposed to be reversed, whether by the Legislature or the voters at referendum,” Harwood said. “This really does call into question the relationship between the Legislature and the PUC, and the independence of the PUC in terms of whether its findings are subject to further review by the Legislature.”

The secretary of state’s office has 30 days to validate the signatures submitted Monday. If the effort is certified with the required number of signatures, it will go before the Legislature for consideration and possible language changes.

If lawmakers don’t make changes, the secretary of state will draft a referendum question and accept public input on the wording before a final question is placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The $1 billion corridor proposed by Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, would carry hydroelectric power from Quebec down a 145-mile transmission line through western Maine to supply regional power via a contract with Massachusetts power utilities.

Most of the project would involve expanding an existing corridor, but about one-third would require cutting a 150-foot-wide swath through undeveloped woods in western Franklin and Somerset counties.

Regulators from the Maine Public Utilities Commission and the Land Use Planning Commission already have approved the project. The project still requires regulatory approval from Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a presidential permit, said Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for Avangrid.

CMP hopes to begin construction this year.

Attempting to change agency decisions at the ballot box fundamentally conflicts with the state’s regulatory system, said Tony Buxton, an attorney with Preti Flaherty who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, which supports the transmission corridor.

“There certainly is a very substantial question of the legality of the question as it is worded and the use of the initiative process to change a decision made by an agency established by the people of Maine,” Buxton said. “That’s the great irony here, these public agencies were established to allow science, facts and reason to be applied in the use of public resources. Prior to these agencies it was done at the Legislature politically.”

Avangrid plans to make sure Mainers understand why the CMP corridor project is important for the state and would help reduce regional greenhouse gases by cutting electricity produced by fossil fuels, Dickinson said.

“That is why fossil fuel companies who have long opposed this process have spent two years spreading false and misleading information about this project,” he said.

Dickinson is not concerned that a referendum will delay or jeopardize the corridor project.

“We are confident we will continue to move this project forward and Massachusetts will be a good partner in paying every dollar associated with the project,” he said.

Supporters say the project would provide clean, renewable energy to the regional power grid, create local jobs and invest in energy for Mainers through a $258 million financial package from Avangrid.

Opponents say the environmental benefits of the project have been overstated, and that it would devastate a region of the state that relies on its natural beauty for tourism and local livelihoods.

Controversy over the power lines coincided with public outrage at CMP for a botched rollout of a new billing and metering system and thousands of customer complaints about high bills. Public faith in the company, Maine’s largest electricity provider, has been rocked as a result.

“We do not trust CMP to build the second-largest infrastructure project in the state of Maine,” Sandi Howard, co-chair of No CMP Corridor, said at Monday’s news conference. “As we have already seen, CMP and Hydro-Quebec are prepared to spend millions of dollars to protect their interests so this billion-dollar project goes through, but we have what they can’t buy, and that’s the will of the people of Maine.”

In the last three months of 2019, CMP spent almost $2.2 million through a political action committee called Clean Energy Matters to promote the corridor project.

No CMP Corridor raised almost $18,800 in cash and $49,000 from in-kind donations from Stop the Corridor, an opposition group in Westbrook. No CMP Corridor spent $19,125.

The possibility of Maine voters electing to kill the corridor project is a concern for investors in Avangrid, according to one stock analyst.

In a report Monday, Julien Domoulin-Smith, a research analyst who follows Avangrid for Bank of America, said the bank was slightly lowering the probability that the corridor would be built on time.

“If it were on the ballot,” Domoulin-Smith wrote, “our perception of NIMBY-ism in Maine could indicate a dire fate. We wait for (management) to comment on whether it will still start construction midsummer (if permits are obtained) or instead wait for election results.”

Domoulin-Smith added that, due to financial penalty levied on CMP last week by state regulators for mismanaging its new billing system, the power line project is “critical” for Avangrid to achieve its projected earnings.

CMP is seeking to have the project carrying power from Canada by December 2022. That date also is important to the Massachusetts utilities that contracted for the electricity.

A 2018 contract with Eversource Energy for the project gives CMP provisions to extend deadlines to December 2024, but it also requires written notice with the reasons for delay, how it could be avoided and the impact on the construction schedule. Eversource also is allowed to terminate the contract if CMP fails to get regulatory approval.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel contributed to this report. 

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