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Fact-checking the most misleading claims on both sides of the CMP corridor debate

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

Maine’s airwaves have once again been filled with political ads this fall as energy companies attempt to influence the outcome of the Nov. 2 referendum aiming to stop the Central Maine Power corridor.

A yes vote would enshrine measures aimed at stopping construction of the 145-mile power line that seeks to bring hydropower from Canada to the New England grid, while a no vote would leave the law as is and allow the project to continue.

More than $60 million in political spending has flowed into the state since the fall of 2019. Pro-corridor groups, funded by CMP and its affiliates as well as Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian energy company that would supply the hydropower, have outspent opponents of the project — led by NextEra, a Florida-based energy company that operates an oil-fired power plant in Yarmouth — about 3 to 1, but the gap has narrowed over the past few months.

Many of the ads contradict one another. Here are the facts behind some of the misleading claims that pop up most.

On ‘retroactivity’

“Question 1 empowers Maine politicians to impose laws retroactively, meaning politicians could target your business, your community, or even you for something that happened legally in the past.” — Mainers for Fair Laws ad

Question 1 empowers the Maine Legislature to retroactively approve or disapprove high-powered transmission lines and certain other projects requiring leases on public lands. It does not give lawmakers any other retroactive powers.

But Maine lawmakers already have the authority to pass retroactive laws. Anti-corridor advocates identified more than 150 laws in the last 20 years that included some retroactive provisions, including laws retroactively affecting sales tax, energy billing and overtime pay. They are only constrained by the courts and the governor’s ability to veto bills.

On the ‘undeveloped forest’

“In a world where much of the land has been developed, Maine’s pristine and untouched forests are a unique gem” and the corridor “threatens to destroy this.” — A letter on the Yes on 1 website

Although the construction of the corridor would involve substantial tree-cutting, the area is not a pristine or untouched forest. It has long been home to commercial logging, and there are hundreds of miles of pre-existing roads. The corridor will certainly affect the landscape — snowmobilers may see power lines more often and trees near lines will not be allowed to grow back. But it is far from the first development in the region.

Maine does have a few forests that could be considered pristine, such as the Big Reed Forest Reserve in Aroostook County, one of only a few remaining old-growth forests in New England. But those types of places are not in the corridor’s path.

On CMP’s permits

“The Maine Superior Court ruled that back in 2014, CMP cut an illegal backroom deal to run their corridor across our public lands.” — Mainers for Local Power radio ad

CMP signed a corridor-related covering 33 acres of public land in Somerset County in 2014. The lease was renegotiated last year, around the time that project opponents sued, arguing it should have been subjected to legislative review because it substantially alters state lands.

A Superior Court judge sided with the plaintiffs earlier this year, but CMP appealed the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The high court has not ruled on the case yet, although it did say last month that a CMP affiliate could resume construction on all but the roughly 1-mile portion of the transmission line crossing disputed land.

Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuit is against the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, not CMP. While the language of an “illegal backroom deal” helps sow distrust in the already unpopular utility, it would be more accurate to say that the judge ruled that the state did not have the authority to approve the lease without legislative input.

On heating costs

“Mainers know that surging oil prices mean higher heating costs this winter. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Vote NO on Question 1 and reduce Maine’s dependence on dirty, expensive fossil fuels.” — Hydro-Quebec Facebook ad

The corridor will help New England reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, as Massachusetts adopting hydropower will free up other energy sources for the rest of the region. But that will only have an effect on electricity, not the heating oil used by two-thirds of Maine households.

A small share of those households still could benefit from the corridor, as CMP agreed to fund $15 million for electric heat pumps for Maine consumers. If that funding was used to subsidize at the current state level of up to $1,600 per household, it would help install heat pumps in about 9,300 Maine homes. That is not nothing, but it will only make a small dent and most Mainers will not see heating bills go down because of the corridor.

This story appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.