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What Mainers' decisive 'yes' vote on Question 1 means for the CMP corridor's future

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

State voters decisively supported an effort to kill Central Maine Power's transmission corridor through western Maine. The power line would serve a contract with Massachusetts electric consumers, but in a vote of 59% to 41% Mainers are saying no, approving a ballot item that aims to undo the project and strengthen the legislature's control over energy transmission initiatives that aren't needed for grid reliability.

Maine Public's Fred Bever spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about what comes next.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: CMP has invested hundreds of millions of dollars already in this project. Does this mean it's dead?

Bever: No, the vote does not kill the project outright, much as its many detractors — and we know that there are very many of them now — much as they would want it. But the vote does imperil the project. Within 20 days Secretary of State Shenna Bellows will certify the elections results, 10 days after that Gov. Janet Mills will proclaim them as well. A month after that the measure becomes law.

And that law will say that high impact transmission lines can't be built anywhere in the upper Kennebec River Valley.

Correct. And that's right where the CMP corridor would start at the Canadian border and head down to the Forks area. The ballot item will also firmly establish the vote of two thirds of each house, the legislature is required when any high impact power line would depend on leasing public lands, as the CMP project currently does depend on and language voters approved explicitly as effective retroactively, meaning its clear intent is to reach back in time and undo the corridor state permit.

So does CMP have to stop its construction activity?

Maybe, maybe not. Some project opponents think the measure on its face requires an automatic halt on any further construction in the Kennebec Valley. And the Natural Resources Council of Maine has already called for state environmental regulators to put a halt to that work. I think it's likely they'll also take it to court and try to get an order for that.

But you can also expect CMP to ask the courts to stay the ballot item itself. CMP has already put out a press release saying it thinks that the ballot question is unconstitutional, and it's going to want time to mount the arguments that the item should be invalidated. But many observers I spoke to this week say they expect CMP to continue full tilt with construction, as it has been doing since last spring.

One interesting thing is that CMP is now going to have to argue the explicit and clearly stated will of the voters doesn't matter. And that's an argument that CMP is probably willing to make. But I'll be interesting to see how state politicians, particularly those like Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, who supported the project, respond to this new situation.

And there are also several other legal challenges on unrelated, or at least not directly related to the ballot referendum that are still playing out. And those could stall or even end the project as well.

So what are the lessons that have been learned here?

First CMP and its energy supplier Hydro Quebec clearly stand to make a lot of money with this project. They've never had to publicly reveal what Massachusetts would pay for the contract for most of the line's capacity. But CMP's parent company Avangrid did tell investors last month that it had already poured more than $400 million into design and construction. That's not to mention roughly $70 million more CMP, Hydro-Quebec and other allies spent in their failed bid to convince Mainers that the impacts on backwoods habitats and economies was worth it.

The company's willingness to spend so much money with such apparent risk out there — that included polls that showed how tough the vote would be to turn around — it makes me think that the potential benefit was simply too good to pass up. Some observers I spoke to say CMP and Hydro-Quebec would have been better off it used those kinds of discretionary funds to offer more meaningful benefits to host communities and to the state.

This was touted as a significant building block in the overall push to use cleaner energy, what's being called "beneficial electrification" of the economy. Is the lesson here that "not in my backyard" is a big problem for that agenda, something President Joe Biden shares?

That is a question that many will be looking at today. Local energy planners, big finance houses that are considering other investments and transmission projects needed to bring renewable energy from places to demand centers, like Boston. Some industry players I've spoken to are unhappy that CMP became sort of a poster child for that, because the company is so demonstrably disliked by its customers, and CMP itself helped kill efforts that would have closely examined just how "green" the project might really be. So was the vote NIMBYism, or was it really just what one of our colleagues called the "CMP hate-vote"?

One early test could be an initiative that the legislature approved this year, which would encourage the development of new transmission infrastructure that would be needed to boost wind turbine development up in Aroostook County.

CMP will likely take this to court. Any idea what its arguments will look like?

Several are being surfaced. But I think the most important will be the concept of vested rights. Again, CMP has put so much money into the project, cut down so many trees, put so many poles in the ground, upgraded a lot of existing facilities, that that can help make the case that they made good faith investments that later action shouldn't be allowed to render valueless.

Now, there's not a lot of precedent in Maine, per the lawyers I spoken to. One case in the 1990s that involved a referendum on developments in Portland's waterfront that went against the developer. But lawyers I've spoken to say the state's Supreme Court, and that is where this is likely headed, will face quite a choice when it comes to putting the kibosh on profits from what looks to be at least a half-billion dollars CMP has invested in Maine.

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.