In July 2017, Central Maine Power put in a bid for a project meant to supply New England with a big slug of clean, renewable energy.

Massachusetts was leading the region into a war against the ravages of climate change. It saw a new transmission line that could import excess hydroelectric power from Canada through northern New England as one weapon in the arsenal. And after New Hampshire rejected a transmission line proposal through its state in 2018, CMP’s project was selected.

Four years later, the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project is under construction. Land is being cleared and poles erected. But rather than being widely embraced as a green-power solution for New England, NECEC has triggered one of the most divisive and expensive environmental battles in Maine history. Now the fight is reaching a climax, in court, at regulatory agencies, in the media and at the ballot box.

It’s an unusual battle in some regards. Most times, opponents try to stop a project from being started. The game here is to stop NECEC from being completed.

To meet contracts with Massachusetts utilities that already have been delayed years, NECEC and its investor-owned parent company took a high-stakes gamble. They have spent more than $350 million on equipment, labor, permitting and construction, calculating that they ultimately will prevail. And that doesn’t include more than $34 million on record-breaking campaign spending to fight the corridor referendum.

It’s also a perplexing fight for some voters just tuning in, because Question 1 may appear to be about something other than a transmission line.

Drivers pass roadside campaign signs reading, “Say No to Retroactive Laws.” Advertisements featuring grim-faced construction workers warn that politicians could shut down their businesses, cancel road projects and kill jobs if Question 1 passes.

This campaign is being carried out by a political action committee funded by the project developers. It focuses on the word “retroactively” in the law behind the ballot question. That word is part of language dealing with certain projects specifically on Maine’s public lands that date back as far as 2014, and a requirement for lawmakers to approve them.

Without any mention of the power line, this element of the No campaign seeks to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of voters. It conflates two sections of the law to mislead voters and create fear that by killing NECEC, they also may wound Maine’s economy.

These and other claims obscure what the New England Clean Energy Connect actually is.

A make-shift bridge is constructed to transport heavy equipment to the NECEC corridor construction sites approximately 15 miles in on Spencer Road in the Unorganized Territories on Tuesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

NECEC is a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, enough energy to run roughly 1 million homes. It would carry energy from Quebec to an alternate-current converter station in Lewiston, where it would enter the New England electric grid. It’s being built largely for the benefit of Massachusetts electric customers, who will pay the $1 billion cost.

The 145-mile route is on land owned or controlled by CMP, except for a one-mile patch through Maine public lands near The Forks. Two-thirds of the route follows existing CMP power line corridors, some of which are being widened up to 75 feet to accommodate another set of poles.

A 53-mile stretch between The Forks and the Quebec border bisects undeveloped commercial forest. The area has been logged for generations but has high-value qualities for wildlife, recreation and biodiversity. Permits require the power corridor in this section to be no more than 54 feet wide. Fewer than 1,000 acres are being cleared in total for the project.

NECEC secured all its state and federal permits before construction began last winter, but at least one of those approvals is now getting a second look.

A Maine Superior Court judge in August voided a lease across the one-mile stretch of public lands after ruling that state officials failed to properly conduct a review to decide whether the line significantly altered the land. CMP and the state are appealing the ruling, but the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is holding a hearing Tuesday on whether it should suspend the permit. Meanwhile, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is allowing construction to continue during the appeal, except on the public lands.

Amid uncertainty, voters will weigh in on whether they think the project should continue and whether to expand the role of the Legislature in approving similar power lines in the future. Whatever the outcome, more legal challenges can be expected.

Q: What happens if I vote yes? Or if I vote no?

A: The ballot question’s wording flips around its actual purpose by asking residents to vote affirmatively to ban something.

A yes vote means you support the initiative. It means you want to prohibit specifically defined “high-impact” power line construction in the Upper Kennebec region and want lawmakers to have the final say on similar projects anywhere in Maine, as well as power lines and various defined activities on public lands going back to 2014.

A no vote means you oppose the ballot initiative. It means you favor NECEC completing construction and don’t want the Legislature to have a vote on approving any “high impact” lines anywhere.

A cement truck passes a house plastered with anti-NECEC corridor signs on U.S. Route 201, also know as Old Canada Road, in Bingham on Oct. 12. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Q: Who is funding the No and Yes campaigns, and why?

A: The two sides combined had shoveled $60 million into the fight as of early October on advertising and other message outreach, already a state record for a ballot question.

One side, which supports the ballot measure and opposes the project, is funded largely by two political action committees, No CMP Corridor and Mainers for Local Power. Allies include environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club. The political action committees have spent a combined $12.7 million.

Campaign finance reports show that the largest share of the money has come from Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, which has donated $7 million since July 1. NextEra owns Wyman Station, an oil-fired power plant in Yarmouth. That has given NECEC supporters the ammunition to brand NextEra as a dirty “big oil and gas” company that opposes clean energy.

In fact, NextEra is among the largest wind and solar generators in the world. It acquired Wyman Station, which serves as backup generation for the region and rarely runs, when its former parent company took over the generating assets of CMP during utility restructuring in the 1990s.

NextEra’s real interest in fighting the NECEC project has to do with its ownership of the 1,250-megawatt Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. NECEC would deliver cheaper, around-the-clock power to New England. That would depress wholesale prices and directly compete with Seabrook, the region’s largest single electricity generator and, incidentally, one that emits zero carbon.

Two Texas-based energy companies that also have helped fund the NECEC opponents own natural gas plants in Maine. They would run less often if NECEC came on line. The companies are Vistra Energy Corp., which has a 520-megawatt plant in Veazie, and Calpine Corp., which owns a 552-megawatt plant in Westbrook.

Another NECEC opposition PAC, No CMP Corridor, has spent $415,000, most of it donated by Mainers for Local Power.

The No campaign, which opposes the ballot question and supports the completion of NECEC, is primarily funded by the developers who stand to gain from it. They are Clean Energy Matters and the Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership. This alliance has outspent project opponents 4-to-1. The latest campaign finance reports show Clean Energy Matters has spent $34.4 million and Hydro-Quebec $14.7 million.

You may also see roadside signs asking you to vote no on Question 1 sponsored by Mainers for Fair Laws. This group makes no mention of the power line but is focused instead on the message that a yes vote will allow lawmakers to retroactively change or kill highway or other projects across Maine. This group is backed financially by Clean Energy Matters, which is funded by NECEC’s developers. It spent $406,000, most of it on advertising.

Construction crews widen the existing tract of corridor near the Wyman Dam. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Q: Opponents describe CMP’s project as a unilateral attempt to push a power line through western Maine’s mountains. Why is it being built in the first place?

A: The impetus dates back to 2016. That’s when Massachusetts enacted a law aimed at creating a clean-energy future that would replace fossil fuels and lower electric rates.

Part of the law mandated that utilities, in cooperation with the state’s energy office, solicit bids and sign contracts for certain amounts of wind, solar and hydro power. Forty-six projects submitted proposals in early 2017, including CMP in partnership with Hydro-Quebec.

But the CMP project was only one of three proposals involving Hydro Quebec, which had been trying for years to establish a new path to sell Canadian power into the Northeast. The others were Northern Pass, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and TDI New England, under Lake Champlain in Vermont.

In late 2017, Massachusetts picked Northern Pass, a project that offered 1,200 megawatts of hydro capacity. Policymakers considered it the best value for Massachusetts electricity customers, who would pay the full cost of the line, and the most likely to be completed.

They were wrong on the second count. New Hampshire residents overwhelming opposed the line, and a state siting agency killed the project in February 2018.

That put the $1 billion NECEC proposal back in play. Unlike the Vermont line, almost all of the Maine project would run above ground, and most of it would be along existing CMP corridors. That made it the next best deal for Massachusetts ratepayers.

In June 2018, with strong encouragement from former Gov. Paul LePage, the Massachusetts utilities announced they had negotiated an agreement with CMP.

Steel power poles are stacked along the path of the NECEC corridor in Concord. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Q: Question 1 is actually three questions wrapped into one citizens’ initiative. What does each part do?

A: The first part reads: “Do you want to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region … ?

This section directly seeks to kill the project. It’s aimed specifically at preventing NECEC from bisecting 53 miles of largely undeveloped forest between The Forks and Beattie Township on the Quebec border.

“High-impact” lines are defined as more than 50 miles in length, outside an existing corridor, not needed for generator interconnections or not primarily for electricity reliability. Such lines would be prohibited within a 43,000-acre area roughly between Bingham and the Canadian border.

The second part reads: “… and to require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactive to 2020 …”

This section would require the Legislature to approve any high-impact transmission line projects anywhere in Maine going back to 2020. NECEC supporters have been running ads asserting that the retroactivity language could allow lawmakers to tank all sorts of projects already underway, including roads and bridges.

That’s a scare tactic. This part of the question only affects high-impact transmission lines. And no one has identified an existing project other than NECEC that would be at risk if Question 1 became law.

The third part reads: “… and require the Legislature retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public lands?”

This section is directly meant to stop NECEC’s route over a critical mile that bisects two adjacent public lots in the Kennebec Valley, in Johnson Mountain Township and West Forks Plantation. It’s retroactive to 2014, because that’s when the state and CMP entered into a lease agreement, an approval being contested in court.

But this retroactivity component is being criticized in a deceptive way.

Ads run by NECEC supporters give the impression that approval of Question 1 could set a precedent to allow politicians to somehow impose new laws or restrictions on any existing project, anywhere in Maine, going back to 2014.

The claim seems meant to confuse voters. It’s deceptive for two reasons:

First, this section only applies to public lands. Second, the underlying law says legislative approval is needed for “poles, transmission lines and facilities, landing strips, pipelines and railroad tracks” that “substantially alter” the use of public lands.

So the third part of the ballot question is strictly about those stated activities on public lands which, by definition, don’t see a lot of development. NECEC proponents have pointed to a handful of small telecom leases that could be impacted, but opponents say they are not the target, and that any issues they faced as a result could be remedied easily by lawmakers.

Q: Will the power line actually bring clean, renewable energy into New England?

A: Unfortunately, this question can’t be answered with certainty.

Some opponents liken the project to a big extension cord through Maine connecting Quebec with Massachusetts. That’s a simplistic analogy. The NECEC line actually will connect with Hydro-Quebec’s transmission system. Depending on wholesale market prices and generator availability, Hydro-Quebec can move power to and from other Canadian provinces as well as New York state.

New England’s grid operator has a tracking tool that can identify power coming from specific generators, but not how it’s dispatched within a utility’s system. Critics say Hydro-Quebec could at times buy power, say, from a natural gas plant in New York to meet its contract obligations in Massachusetts and move it though its system in a way that makes it seem like hydro power.

That’s the warning expressed in a 2018 report by Energyzt Advisors, a consulting firm hired by project opponents to assess whether the project would result in a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in New England.

Hydro-Quebec, however, has said it has so much capacity in its vast reservoirs that it has had to spill water over dams because it lacked sufficient economical exports. What’s more, Hydro-Quebec says it has enough existing storage that it can supply both NECEC and a second, similarly sized project designed to bring hydro power underground and underwater to New York City – the Champlain Hudson Power Express. That project got a boost in September, when New York authorities picked it for contract negotiations.

Construction equipment sits on a newly cut swath of forest for the New England Clean Energy Connect corridor near mile 16 on Spencer Road in the unorganized territories near Jackman on Oct. 12. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Q: Is that uncertainty the reason environmentalist groups are split on the project?

A: It’s a big reason. A couple of regional environmentalist groups, the Conservation Law Foundation and Acadia Center, collaborated with interests including Maine’s Office of Public Advocate and the Governor’s Energy Office to reach a settlement agreement in 2019 before the state Public Utilities Commission. It imposed conditions valued at $260 million, including money for heat pumps, electric vehicle charging stations and energy efficiency programs for low-income residents.

Separately, Gov. Janet Mills received a commitment from Hydro-Quebec to directly sell enough discounted energy in Maine each year to run 70,000 homes.

Taken together, Mills and these interests have made the calculation that the project and settlement conditions will have a net positive impact on blunting climate change in New England.

But key adversaries led by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club, which helped commission the Engergyzt report, arrived at the opposite conclusion. They say it won’t have any impact on climate change and would lead to “greenwashing,” selling fossil fuel power under the facade of clean energy.

Q: Would the power line run through “unspoiled wilderness,” as opponents claim?

A: A strict definition of wilderness is land not significantly modified by human activity. But unspoiled wilderness may be in the eye of the beholder.

The 53-mile, undeveloped route between The Forks and the Quebec border, known as Section 1, is mostly commercial timberland that contains multiple logging roads and has been harvested for generations. Anyone can see that by cracking open a Maine Atlas, zooming in on Google Earth or driving into the area.

Still, it remains a treasured, remote area of the Maine Woods that’s part of the largest temperate forest in North America.

The power line corridor would further fragment the forest, opponents say, and disrupt natural resources from deer herds to brook trout habitat with a clearcut right-of-way “as wide as the New Jersey Turnpike.”

That characterization is deceiving. CMP does own a right-of-way that’s 300 feet wide. And it initially sought a 150-foot-wide corridor for the project. But the permit granted by the Department of Environmental Protection greatly reduced the size and impact.

The corridor through Section 1 can be no wider than 54 feet. Some opponents have claimed it is being cut wider, but the DEP has found no evidence of that.

In addition, trees at least 35 feet tall must be preserved in certain vulnerable wildlife habitats covering 14 miles. No herbicides can be used within the 53-mile section.

CMP also must spend $1.8 million to replace culverts that currently block fish passage, and it must conserve 40,000 acres in the region, according to the DEP permit.

A steel tower is seen above a home on Kennebec River Road in Concord. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Q: Some people oppose the project because they are against “mega dams.” What’s that about?

A: This is a complex topic. It’s largely centered on the environmental effects of impounding water behind giant dams.

Flooded forests release carbon dioxide and methane – two greenhouse gases – as they decompose. But Hydro-Quebec, which has developed 681 dams and 28 large reservoirs over decades, isn’t building any new dams or reservoirs for the NECEC project.

Another concern is highly poisonous methylmercury, which forms when bacteria reacts with naturally occurring mercury in plants and soil. It can accumulate in fish that are then eaten by people, presenting a health risk. Methylmercury has been studied for years in Canada, where millions of acres of forest have been flooded.

For its part, Hydro-Quebec says the impacts are temporary and can be managed by limiting fish consumption. But mercury is of great concern to indigenous communities that are located near the man-made lakes and in some instances were flooded to create them.

Native people also say they haven’t been adequately compensated for the loss of their lands. Fighting mega dams is a political and environmental justice issue in Canada that has spilled over into the United States and the NECEC battle. Incidentally, the pros and cons of mega dams are also being debated in places worldwide including Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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