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Debrief: State PUC Recommends Approval Of CMP Transmission Project - What Now?

Fred Bever
Maine Public

Staff at the Maine Public Utilities Commission last nightrecommended approvalof Central Maine Power’s proposal to build a 145-mile transmission line through western Maine.

It’s not a final decision, but, nonetheless, a boost for the project and a blow to its opponents. Maine Public’s Fred Bever joined Jennifer Mitchell on Morning Edition for a first look at the latest development around the controversial plan.

Mitchell: Fred what’s the takeaway?

Bever: High-level analysts at the Commission say the billion dollar project’s potential benefits for Maine outweigh its costs.

OK. So this project would bring hydro-electricity from Canada through Maine to provide enough energy for a million homes… in Massachusetts, right? Massachusetts is buying the electricity. What’s in it for Maine?

These civil service staffers write that that big slug of renewable energy would reduce electricity costs, improve the reliability and diversity of the state’s energy supply, and help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals by displacing fossil fuel energy production. Essentially, they accepted arguments from CMP and project supporters, such as energy-intensive paper mills and chip-makers, who believe the project would put a brake on electricity costs in Maine.

Here’s Central Maine Power spokesperson John Carroll:

“Today’s report squarely addresses the questions that have been raised in the course of this proceeding. And it confirms that the project will provide environmental and economic benefits for Maine and Maine people.”

The commission staff did do some reality-checking too though: while backers are touting some $258 million worth of economic incentives CMP would provide the state... that’s doled out over 40 years. The staff pegged the present day value as at most, $82 million.

So you’ve mentioned some of the purported benefits. What does the staff say about potential costs or harms?

They actually have a fairly stern critique of the project’s effects on scenic and recreation resources around the 53-mile cleared corridor the project would cut through western Maine. A ‘significant and detrimental impact’ on scenic resources and the associated economy, they write. And they write that CMP showed an ‘unsettling disregard’ for some people in the host communities.

But that doesn’t outweigh the benefits?

From the staff’s view, it doesn’t. They write that the values that would be compromised are localized, and not as significant as the broader energy market benefits the project would produce.

How are opponents reacting?

Stiff upper lip, brave face.

Here’s Sandra Howard of “Say No to the Corridor:”

“There’s nothing in this report that changes the facts that this transmission corridor is a bad deal for Maine and it’s deeply unpopular. The people of Maine have told the PUC loud and clear that they don’t want the Corridor.”

And it’s important to note that just because staff makes a recommendation, that doesn’t mean the three Public Utilities Commissioners will actually accept it.

They were appointed by former Governor LePage, though, who was a big fan of Canadian hydropower.

That’s true, and many observers say this group tends to look favorably on utility infrastructure projects. At the same time though they are independent thinkers, any one of whom is willing to chart his own course.

What’s next?

Parties to the case have ten days to respond to the staff recommendation. After that a final decision by the Commissioners could come pretty quick — by May.

That’s not the last word, though.

No there are several other permits CMP must win including one more narrowly focused on environmental issues. The state department of environmental protection opens hearings on that Monday in Farmington. And Jennifer, I’d just like to like to mention, you can go online to mainepublic.org for a link to the staff report– it’s really a pretty good primer on the issues here and a window on the way energy regulators think.

And only 162 pages long. Thanks Fred.

For an extensive analysis of the business and environmental considerations of CMP’s project, click here to read our series “Power Struggle In The Maine Woods.”

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.