Tuesday’s Press Herald reported on the certification of signatures for the latest referendum to stop the proposed high-voltage transmission line to carry clean power from Canada to utility customers in Massachusetts.

“Operation of the line will likely be highly profitable to CMP. However, no significant benefit from the profits earned will redound to Maine ratepayers,” Peter L. Murray writes. steve estvanik/Shutterstock.com

Why has this project generated such stubborn opposition? With global warming, more use of green power, whether in Maine or Massachusetts, should be a good development. Although a new 53-mile swathe through Maine’s western wilderness is not to be welcomed, Maine’s environmental protection regulators have uniformly found that the line’s environmental impact is within tolerable limits. Central Maine Power Co., which proposes the project, has sweetened the pot of financial benefits for affected communities and the state.  Nonetheless, Mainers continue to resist.

Perhaps a good deal of the resistance that this project has encountered in Maine stems from a subconscious realization that CMP, a profit-making corporation, is appropriating for itself the economic benefit of Maine’s geographic location squarely in the path between Hydro-Quebec’s green power and a big market for that power in Massachusetts. Maine’s geographic advantage is a matter of chance, not the result of business acumen of CMP or any investment by its shareholder. Why should CMP, rather than the state of Maine or its citizens, get the economic benefit of Maine’s geography?

We must remember that the proposed new line is not a part of CMP’s public utility business of transmitting and distributing electric power within Maine. CMP’s conveyance of power to customers other than Maine ratepayers is its own corporate business. The entire profit, as well as the allocated costs of the new business, are retained by CMP and its owner, Iberdrola S.A. of Bilbao, Spain.

CMP has never disclosed either the amount of revenue it expects to receive for conveying the Canadian power or the amount of profit that it hopes to flow to the bottom line. It was able to reach for this lucrative opportunity only because it is conducting a utility business in Maine. Operation of the line will likely be highly profitable to CMP. However, no significant benefit from the profits earned will redound to Maine ratepayers.

A sense of the unfairness in this state of affairs may be what is giving teeth and toughness to those Mainers who are fighting CMP’s project. The opportunity to make a transmission connection between Quebec and Massachusetts goes with the geography of Maine and better belongs to its people than to the utility that happens to be on the scene. CMP is asking Maine to bear the burden of this link between an out-of-state purveyor and its out-of-state customer but is planning on retaining most of the benefit for itself. The concessions it has made in terms of payments to municipalities and potential access to a part of the power conveyed are peanuts compared to the profits it is hoping to realize.

Perhaps this unhappy scenario could have turned out otherwise had the project been approached from the outset as a full public-private partnership between the state of Maine and CMP. Mainers might be more willing to bear any necessary compromises with the pristine quality of their environment if they felt that they themselves would be core beneficiaries of the enterprise. Decisions on facility location and environmental protection could be made cooperatively rather than as adversaries before boards. Maine people, who in many ways bear the burdens of our remote border location, would be able to realize some of its benefits.

In a sense, the CMP corridor can be regarded as another example of private business seeking to appropriate a public asset. This is a theme as old as mills on Maine rivers and mines on public lands in the West. It will be too bad if CMP is able to bull the project through as it is. It will also be too bad if CMP is thwarted and green power from Canada remains out of the reach of consumers in New England. Until the project’s benefits are more accurately aligned with the public component of its economic value, a real sense of unfairness may well persist.

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