CMP Proposed Power-Line Corridor
CMP Proposed Power-Line Corridor
Whether CMP’s giant transmission line should be built through the Maine North Woods — a policy question — is being debated widely. But less has been publicly discussed about the politics of the battle. Who’s fighting whom, and who’s likely to win? That’s the subject of this two-part series.

Not the usual opponents

Last week the state Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved Central Maine Power Co.’s plan to cut a huge, high-voltage transmission-line corridor southeast from the Canadian border through 53 miles of the North Woods near Jackman. The corridor would be 150 feet wide but eventually could be doubled in width.

The line would then extend its 95-foot towers for another 92 miles south along existing, widened CMP rights-of-way to connect to the New England power grid at Lewiston. It would bring 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is buying non-fossil-fuel-generated electricity to do its bit to slow global warming. Oil and gas plants gush out carbon dioxide, the most important “greenhouse gas.” Hydro-Québec, the company Massachusetts would buy the electricity from, has big dams generating power throughout the province.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a strong supporter of the nearly $1-billion project, had appointed the PUC’s three members, so their votes were predictable. The decision was a key approval, but the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission, as well as Massachusetts and federal officials, still must give their okays.

And the Legislature is getting into the act. It’s considering four bills that each could quash the project. Beyond the State House is, probably, the courthouse. Then, beyond these official forums, are the citizens. There is talk in Augusta of a citizens-initiated referendum to block the corridor. That’s because it is extremely unpopular.

A recent poll conducted by a respected pollster, Critical Insights, for an opponent, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), revealed that 65 percent of respondents statewide opposed the corridor — with an astonishing 90 percent in opposition in Franklin County and 83 percent in Somerset County. This is the area most affected. The corridor is more acceptable the farther from its path through the North Woods, but it’s unacceptable everywhere. In coastal Maine, for example, 61 percent are opposed; only 16 percent support it.

As of press time, 12 towns along the corridor route had voted their opposition or withdrawn support, despite promises of increased property taxes and a flurry of jobs during the project’s construction.

In the background on this issue, CMP itself is unpopular because of months of questionable electric bills sent to thousands of customers that have resulted in PUC investigations and a lawsuit alleging fraud. Many customers also have felt the company’s responses to power outages have been inadequate. Reacting to these criticisms, CMP has apologized a little and denied a lot. A recent Bangor Daily News report revealed that the billing problems are continuing.

Hardly adding to its popularity, CMP is no longer CMP, in the sense that it has become a possession of the global corporate giant Iberdrola, headquartered in Bilbao, Spain.

“People do not trust CMP,” said former Republican Sen. Tom Saviello, of Wilton, a corridor foe. When he and other opponents go to a bar and begin talking about the project, he said, “people start throwing $20 bills at us.”

A sore point also is that Maine would get none of the new power from Canada, though the state might benefit if the project lowers the price of electricity in New England by replacing higher-priced fossil-fuel plants. Plus, after demands from various interest groups and state officials, CMP agreed during the PUC proceedings to provide $258 million worth of miscellaneous benefits to Maine people over 40 years.

The largest benefit of this deal would be $140 million in customer rate reductions. But critics point out that this sum over such a long period would amount to pennies a month for most households. In addition, $50 million would go to help low-income people with their electric bills, $15 million to promote electric cars, $15 million for heat pumps, $15 million for high-speed internet service, among other benefits.

Typically, Maine environmental battles see big-business interests and forces within government that promote big business face off against people who want to preserve parts of the environment from development or destruction. Remember (or look up): Bigelow, Sears Island, Big A, Dickey Lincoln, Ban Clearcutting — not to mention efforts to clean up water, land, and air. (Disclosure: I played a role on the environmentalist side in several of these battles.)

To understand the politics of the North Woods Corridor issue, let’s look at who is pitted against whom, beginning with the typical case.

Business versus environmentalists?

This battle is not typical. Both the business community and environmentalists are divided.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce in Waterville are vocal supporters of the corridor. Also supportive are the decidedly self-interested contractors, including Maine’s biggest, Cianbro. They have their own lobbying organization, Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, run by longtime Democratic activist Benjamin Dudley. The IBEW electrical workers’ union has joined hands in this group with their members’ employers.

But the opponents include some large power-generating corporations that could be economically challenged by competition from hydro power pouring onto the New England grid. And many — though not all — tourist businesses in The Forks region and further afield are opposed. That mountainous area on the road to Quebec attracts thousands of visitors yearly who might be turned off by a power line with its giant towers, although under pressure CMP agreed to put the wires under the Kennebec River Gorge, a white-water-rafting mecca.

The state’s largest and most influential environmental organization, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), leads the opposition. It’s supported by the Sierra Club, Environment Maine, Trout Unlimited, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. The power lines would cross the Appalachian Trail.

NRCM is focused on the corridor’s environmental damage. It would cross many streams and wetlands, require access roads, and fragment wild land. The proponents counter that much of the forest involved is regularly harvested for wood.

NRCM also strenuously doubts CMP’s claim that the Canadian electricity would help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. Even if the cheaper hydro power shuts down some New England fossil-fuel plants, Hydro-Québec has its own problem with the carbon balance sheet. It has long been accused of drowning vast forests in northern Quebec to create reservoirs for its dams. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air — known in ecological lingo as “carbon sequestration.”

NRCM also questions whether Hydro-Québec can supply power on the lucrative proposed line to Massachusetts without taking it from electricity it already supplies to New York State — forcing New York to turn back to fossil-fuel plants.

Another vigorous opponent is a grassroots outfit, Say NO to NECEC, which claims 4,600 Facebook “members.” It’s strongest along the corridor route. (The group has bought into CMP’s name for the corridor, NECEC, New England Clean Energy Connect.)

On the other hand, supporting the project because of its claims to help reduce global warming are two New England–wide environmental groups with offices in Maine: the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Acadia Center, which also has an office in New York. (Please take note of the preceding words “New England,” of which Massachusetts is the most populous state.)

Sean Mahony, CLF’s Maine director, admitted he’s “not necessarily a huge fan of Hydro-Québec,” but he said the company plans to bring on line a big new dam by 2022 and increase the output of existing dams. Thus, he doesn’t see the company needing to divert power from its other customers to send it through Maine to Massachusetts.

But CLF’s stance in Maine is at odds with its position in New Hampshire, where it strongly opposed bringing Quebec hydro power through the state to Massachusetts until the Granite State’s regulators nixed the idea last year.

Mahoney said that CLF has become more reassured about the source of the power in Quebec; that more benefits for Mainers were obtained in the PUC proceedings than could be obtained for New Hampshirites; and that in our neighboring state “a lot more public land” would have been intruded upon or be near the power line, including part of the White Mountain National Forest.

Two other environmental groups, Maine Audubon and the Nature Conservancy, have reservations about the project but are not taking an aggressive stance against it; they are not known for their aggressiveness.

At the joint Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission public hearing in Farmington on April 2, the differences between environmental groups were reflected in the differences between individual environmentalists.

Most who spoke were opposed. The first at the microphone was a tall, nervous, 11-year-old girl who in a faint voice but with moving eloquence declared: “The land up there is gorgeous.” Others talked of “a massive scenic interruption” and a permanent “scar” in the region, which is a place for “serenity and regeneration” that’s “impossible to monetize.” Some expressed fears about the toxic pesticide spraying that they said would have to be done along the corridor.

These were people, so to speak, on the ground. Others came at the issue with more abstract positions and generally from locations far from the North Woods. They seemed so sincerely frightened by global warming that they were willing to accept some destruction of the forest to do anything to curb it.

Outside a legislative hearing a couple of weeks later, a retired employee of the World Bank from Yarmouth approached me because, I assumed, he saw my notebook and pen. He volunteered that he was a member of NRCM and the Sierra Club. But such corridor opponents, he said, were short-sighted: “They want to preserve the old Maine.” By contrast, he was in favor of CMP’s plan because “I want to save the planet.”

Republicans versus Democrats?

James Melcher, a political-science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the corridor issue “doesn’t break down in a clean line” between liberals and conservatives. That’s an understatement. For an environmental issue, to have 71 percent of Republicans oppose the project statewide, as the Critical Insights poll found, compared to 56 percent of Democrats, is nothing short of startling.

Correspondingly, many legislative Republicans, whose party tends to reflexively support any big-business proposal, are opposed to the project or have doubts about it.

Former GOP Sen. Saviello pointed out that when Sen. Shenna Bellows, of Manchester, one of the more liberal Democrats, and Sen. Paul Davis, of Sangerville, one of the more conservative Republicans, are co-sponsoring bills to put impediments in the way of this project, it’s an unusual situation.

On the Democratic side of the State House, our new governor, Janet Mills, approves of the corridor, despite having expressed skepticism about it during her campaign. At a news conference announcing support, she held up a cube of carbon to symbolize what the hydro power would supposedly reduce in the atmosphere.

On her side are presumably some of her firmest supporters (again, in the poll more Republicans oppose it than Democrats) as well as such people as prominent Democratic lobbyists Tony Buxton, who represents industrial users of electricity and helped engineer the PUC benefits deal, and Jim Mitchell, who represents CMP. Both gave money to Mills, and both raised money for her. While the PUC deal was being worked out, her adviser was Thomas Welch, former CMP lobbyist and former PUC chairman.

But many Democrats in the Legislature have come out strongly against the corridor. “The wilderness of Maine is a more valuable draw than anything that has been stated as a benefit of this proposal,” Sen. David Miramant, of Camden, told Rockland’s Courier-Gazette. In the same news article, Rep. Vicki Doudera, also of Camden, said it’s unclear whether the project will reduce carbon emissions, and “the line itself is a threat to clean water, wildlife, and the region’s local economy.”

Independent Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, of Friendship, called the corridor “a boondoggle of major proportions ... a Hall of Famer.”

Gov. Mills’ embarrassing appearance on March 25 at her hometown Farmington town meeting showed what she’s up against. After she made a strong pitch for the corridor, the town voted better than two-to-one to oppose it.

Urban versus rural?

Professor Melcher told me he felt “an awful lot” of the opposition “has to do with the energy going to Massachusetts.” And many people “don’t like the aesthetics” of a giant power line in the North Woods.

These are factors, for sure, but the fact that there’s such deep, bipartisan opposition in rural Franklin and Somerset counties compared to the more urban and suburban southern counties (though it’s unpopular there, too) is revealing of something more profound.

One corridor adversary, Jonathan Carter, the former Green Party candidate for governor — who lives in the shadow of the western mountains near North New Portland — has thoughts on this unusual political fight.

Carter, a botanist, bemoans that environmental battles in Maine and elsewhere are for the most part about development of what’s left of the environment and what trade-offs can be obtained rather than about conservation and preservation. He asks: Why not make more investments to lower electrical consumption? Why not have more public transportation?

“There’s no room for trade-offs anymore,” he said, about global warming — rather than big windmills and transmission lines feeding consumption and destroying the wilds, the forest should be kept as intact as possible because trees massively soak up carbon dioxide.

In the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day (which is this Monday, April 22), conservation was more of a watchword among environmentalists than alternative energy. The phrase “limits to growth” and a book by that title were popular. Have we made progress along these lines? Consider that Western Europeans, with a standard of living like ours, use half the energy per person, as the accompanying bar graph shows.

Although in Maine there are development-restriction easements on some of the “working forest,” and we now have the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the society-changing conservation efforts that Carter argues for are not much discussed. No one is asking Massachusetts citizens, for example, to use less energy as an alternative to building the transmission line to feed their energy appetite.

But the rural Maine people so opposed to the corridor unapologetically want to conserve some of what’s left of “the old Maine,” as the gentleman from Yarmouth dismissively put it. They are conservatives in the best sense. Yes, aesthetics is part of it. And maybe in the context of fighting global warming, conservation and preservation are not such bad ideas.

Next week: Insiders often beat outsiders, but this time it could be different.