Still from a Hydro-Québec ad promoting hydroelectric power that was broadcast to Maine audiences (Source: Hydro-Québec)
Still from a Hydro-Québec ad promoting hydroelectric power that was broadcast to Maine audiences (Source: Hydro-Québec)
Natural Resources Council of Maine recently cataloged the spending by Hydro-Québec to defeat a November ballot measure that could block the controversial Central Maine Power transmission corridor project.

New England Clean Energy Connect, as the project is known, would transmit hydropower electricity generated by Hydro-Quebec through new power lines built in Western Maine to serve customers in Massachusetts. The corridor would cut through 53 miles of undeveloped woods.

In the last 15 months, the Hydro-Québec Maine Partnership ballot committee spent $9.99 million to turn public sentiment against any referendum meant to stop the CMP corridor. Additionally, CMP’s Clean Energy Matters PAC raised $14.87 million during the same period, spending much of it burning corridor-positive images of burbling brooks and aerial flyovers of mountains into the mind of every Mainer with a TV or smartphone. Both amounts were more than the next most expensive campaign on a ballot measure, when supporters of a York County casino proposal spent more than $9 million in 2017.

Hydro-Québec’s purchases included 54 full-page and 32 half-page ads from January to August 2020, more than any other political entity during that period, according to NRCM.

The citizen-initiated ballot measure, An Act To Require Legislative Approval of Certain Transmission Lines, is expected to appear on the November ballot.

If passed, it would require both houses of the Legislature to approve by a two-thirds vote “high-impact electric transmission lines, ” defined as at least 50 miles long, lying outside of a statutory corridor or petitioned corridor, and not related to a generator interconnection transmission facility or constructed primarily to provide electric reliability.

It would also prohibit electric transmission lines from being built in the upper Kennebec region.

Two bills currently in the Maine Legislature (LD 194 and LD 479) would aim to limit spending by foreign-owned entities like Hydro-Québec in the future by closing what NRCM and others see as a loophole in Maine’s election law. The loophole allows foreign entities to spend money on referendums, despite federal laws barring foreign spending on campaigns with candidates.

LD 194, sponsored by Sen. Richard Bennett (R-Oxford County), focuses on “foreign government-owned entities,” which it defines as 10% owned by a foreign government.

LD 479, sponsored by Rep. Kyle Bailey (D-Gorham) and co-sponsored by three midcoast legislators, Sen. Dave Miramant, Rep. Vicki Doudera, and Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, speaks of “foreign nationals” and would set a 5% foreign ownership threshold.

John Brautigam of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, testifying in support of the bills, said federal law limits foreign ownership to 1%, and much smaller numbers have been discussed because of the large war chests possessed by multinational corporations. He gave the example of AT&T with a market capitalization of $211 billion.

“A 1% shareholder in AT&T holds an investment worth over $2 billion,” he said.

Brautigam said the recent trend toward globalization has increased the importance of limits to foreign participation in American elections.

In contrast, attorney Gerald Petruccelli testifying for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce submitted a list of more than 100 “foreign investments in Maine,” suggesting that foreign ownership is woven into the fabric of Maine business. The list included several midcoast businesses: Ducktrap River of Maine (a Belfast salmon processing business owned by Norway-based multinational MOWI), Dragon Products cement in Thomaston (owned by Cementos Portland Valderrivas, SA, of Spain), Lonza (a Swiss multinational chemical and biotech company with offices in Rockland), Irving Oil (based in New Brunswick), Rynel (a Wiscasset polyurethane foam manufacturer, owned by Mõlnlycke Health Care of Sweden). The chamber represents 5,000 businesses. Other notable names on the list of 100 or so foreign-owned businesses included Backyard Farms, Irving Oil and Eimskip.

Unlike any of these companies Hydro-Québec is wholly owned by the Province of Quebec, which NRCM said makes the large amount spent to defeat the ballot measure uniquely problematic.

“No Maine lawmaker should be comfortable knowing that the Quebec government, through its ownership of Hydro-Québec, is spending millions of dollars to influence Maine voters,” NRCM Advocacy Director Pete Didisheim wrote in a press release.

The bills are currently with the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs. The committee held a workshop on March 26 and voted down a third bill intended to limit foreign influence in elections (LD 641) at the request of the sponsor. That bill was nearly identical to one introduced in the last legislative session (LD 2136) that died in committee.

At the time, Attorney General Aaron Frey wrote a memo, warning that the law could be open to legal challenges that were hard to predict.

The committee tabled the two remaining bills to allow time for more analysis.

Several other states currently prohibit contributions by foreign nationals, corporations or governments. Former Rep. Kenneth Fredette submitted a list, including California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington, to testimony on the bills.

NRCM said Hydro-Québec has gone to great lengths to avoid facing criticism and penalties, including changing its address in published ads to appear to be located in the U.S. and ignoring a request from Maine lawmakers to stop.

Last July, a bipartisan group of legislators contacted the premier of Quebec and CEO of Hydro-Québec, requesting that they “cease all further campaign activities in Maine and let the people of Maine vote without further meddling in our elections.” In response, NRCM wrote, “Hydro-Québec issued a terse letter making clear it would continue its concerning behavior.”

In its analysis, NRCM noted that in 2019 and 2020 representatives of Hydro-Québec refused to come to Maine to answer questions about the CMP corridor project, but “rushed to the Maine State House to testify on March 11, 2020, against LD 2136, a bill aimed at closing this loophole.”

Hydro-Québec has testified against the current bills from several angles. Tim Woodcock, an attorney for Hydro-Québec, invoked legal precedent, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t recognized any state interest that justifies limiting advocacy on issues.

The bills, he said, “would make the Maine Legislature the judge of the information that the Maine Electors, in their sovereign capacity as lawmakers, may consider and from whom they may receive that information — a power that the Maine Legislature does not possess.” Additionally, he said, the bills would deny companies their right to petition the government under the U.S. and Maine constitutions.

François Ramsay, general counsel to Hydro-Québec, wrote to discourage comparing Maine’s election rules with Quebec’s, because in Quebec referendums are rare and only initiated by the government on constitutional changes. Additionally, he said, Canada has not granted the rights of citizen to corporations. “In this regard, all corporations and entities are treated equally as it relates to involvement in referendum elections,” he said.

The bills are also opposed by timber interests.

Maine Forest Products Council Executive Director Patrick Strauch testified that “Maine’s forest industry is an amalgam of companies from Maine and elsewhere on the globe. The commitments of foreign companies in Maine is a welcome and exciting sign for the future of the industry.”

Anthony Hourihan, representing New Brunswick–based J.D. Irving, Ltd., said the bills would unfairly disadvantage foreign companies in policy debates. He compared them to out-of-state money spent to back other referendums “… often from folks that do not invest or operate businesses in the state,” he said. “Why should their voices be heard when ours cannot be; are they representing our employees, and keeping business in the state competitive?”

Ellen Pope of Southwest Harbor testified that the bill would prevent Hydro-Québec from “responding to a ballot initiative that is funded by its competition, representatives from the fossil fuel industry from Florida and Texas.”

The bills are supported by Sierra Club Maine and other environmental groups.

The CMP corridor is also under attack in federal court. The Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Sierra Club Maine filed suit in federal court last year alleging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to assess the full impacts of the transmission line on the environment and communities of Western Maine.

On March 29, the groups moved to add the U.S. Department of Energy to the lawsuit on grounds that DOE, in a rush to approve the project before the start of the Biden administration, pursued a presidential permit without first allowing for public comment.