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As Maine transmission project advances, opponents rekindle debate over Quebec electricity supplier

Wikimedia Commons
The Daniel-Johnson Dam in Quebec, Canada.

After millions of dollars spent on legal and electoral tussles, construction of the $1 billion transmission corridor halted by Maine voters two years ago ispoised to move forward. Opponents of the project are now focusing on an outstanding federal permitting dispute while also trying to reignite a debate over the corridor’s climate change benefits and the generation capacity of its electricity supplier, Hydro-Quebec.

Taken together, the developments highlight how the 145-mile transmission line known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, continues to be contentious, even after bruising and costly battles in court and the ballot box. And it may also foreshadow protracted legal and political disputes over other major energy projects that some argue are critical to shifting electricity production away from fossil fuels.

Environmental groups in Maine have long been divided on Hydro-Quebec’s generation capacity and the project’s touted greenhouse gas reductions, with opponents challenging claims that it will have a profound effect on regional emissions. Now, as project developers notch legal and regulatory victories that move the transmission line closer to reality, opponents in the Maine Legislature are questioning whether Hydro-Quebec can satisfy its U.S. export demands alongside Quebec’s domestic electrification efforts.

Last week, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, all opponents of the corridor, called on Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey to reassess its commitment to the NECEC. The project is a direct result of a contract between Hydro-Quebec, Avangrid — the parent company of Central Maine Power — and Massachusetts to help meet a Bay State law setting aggressive targets for renewable energy.

“A careful review of the new reality of electricity generation and demand in Quebec could provide Massachusetts with strong grounds for terminating the NECEC contract in favor of clean energy sources with fewer environmental impacts,” the lawmakers wrote to Healey.

The Maine lawmakers also called on Quebec Premier Francois Legault to “help dispel the myth that Quebec has so much power that it doesn’t know what to do with it all, which is clearly not accurate.”

The Canadian press reported this winter that the government-owned utility is eyeing construction of several new hydroelectric dams and other generation sources to meet demands that it says could soon outpace its current capacity. In February, Quebec was briefly forced to import U.S.-produced electricity amid a cold-snap that spiked electricity demand to historic highs.

“I think Maine lawmakers should understand, and Maine people should understand, that power was surging up to Quebec to satisfy their needs,” Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a strident opponent of the NECEC, said in February. “That is in direct contrast to the image that we've been given by Hydro-Quebec of (having) so much power ... ‘it's too cheap to meter, we just want to send it your way to satisfy your needs.’”

In February, Hydro-Quebec officials sharply disputed assertions that the brief cold-snap imports to the province -- or the pursuit of more generation -- were evidence that corridor supporters had overstated the company’s role as a regional electricity partner. Responding to questions from Maine Public, Serge Abergel, chief operating officer for Hydro-Quebec’s U.S. markets, described electricity exports to Quebec as an “anomaly” attributable to a short, powerful blast of Arctic air and wind that spiked demand in the province to an all-time high.

“It's not something that we do, it's not something that we want to do,” Abergel said. “However, it is a reality. I think, as every region around us, including ourselves, are pushing this (electrification) transition, you're also pushing your grid and pushing whatever energy you have.”

Lynn St.-Laurent, a spokesperson for Hydro-Quebec, added that Quebec has only imported energy from the U.S. for a total of seven hours over a four-year period.

“The fact is, HQ is a reliable clean energy partner for New England,” she said.

Nevertheless, the New England Power Generators Association, a group that includes several corridor opponents as members, distributed a presentation highlighting the Canadian company’s recent New England exports.

One of the slides from the presentation asked, “How much can we rely on Hydro-Quebec?”

Didisheim views those reports, and the recent New England energy exports to Quebec, as evidence that corridor supporters oversold Hydro-Quebec’s generation capacity when Maine lawmakers were debating the NECEC climate benefits in 2019. At the time, Didisheim’s organization argued that more study was needed to assess Hydro-Quebec’s generation capacity.

“Because from a perspective of addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you need to know what the source of generation is,” he said. “If they're just shifting power from other markets to satisfy the New England demand from the NECEC, then that totally alters the equation. And it could be that there's no net climate benefits.”

St.-Laurent rejected the notion that Hydro-Quebec would send anything but clean — and tracked — hydropower via the NECEC. She also said the reference to tightening supply in the company’s strategic plan was designed to meet future demand spikes attributable to a provincewide electrification push.

Nevertheless, questions about Hydro-Quebec’s export capacity continue to surface, most recently in a report by Forbes magazine headlined “Big Power Shortfall Looms After Quebec Wooed US With Cheap Hydro.”

Whether any of that scrutiny affects completion of the NECEC is unclear. Gov. Healey, a skeptic of the project when she served as Massachusetts attorney general, ran for governor on a pledge to transition the state’s electricity supply to 100% renewable power by 2030. A recent report in the Boston Globe attempted an accounting of the Bay State’s progress and it showed that the NECEC is vital to honoring that pledge.

Paid leave to get hearing

The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee will hold a public hearing next Thursday on paid family and medical leave, an issue that is a top priority for progressive groups and a major concern for some business interests.

Federal law allows most workers to take unpaid time off to deal with a family or personal medical issue, including the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member. But progressives have been pushing in Maine and around the country to enact state-level laws that ensure people can still get paid when they take leave.

The proposal on the table at the Maine State House, LD 1964, would make workers eligible for up to 12 weeks of both family leave and medical leave for a total of 16 weeks during a year. Payments would come from a dedicated insurance fund. And both workers and their employers would contribute equally to that fund through a wager tax of up to 1%.

Progressive groups have made clear that if the Legislature doesn’t pass a PFML bill this year, they will try to put the issue before voters via a statewide ballot initiative. In fact, the Maine People’s Alliance and Maine’s Women’s Lobby are already gathering petition signatures.

Business groups like the Maine State Chamber of Commerce remain leery of the proposal, however, because of the potential costs to employers. Although there had been discussions about a plan that all parties could live with, there has been no grand compromise yet.

Major issues remain as clock ticks

That’s just one of the numerous major issues lingering out there as lawmakers enter what was supposed to be the final month of the 2023 session. Other unresolved issues include:

  • Abortion — A work session has yet to be announced for the highest-profile abortion bill, which would lift the state’s restrictions on abortions later in a pregnancy as long as a doctor deems the procedure to be medically necessary. Opponents of the bill, LD 1619,turned out in record numbers during a public hearing earlier this month that lasted nearly 20 hours. But enough Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to pass the bill.
  • Gun control — A legislative committee split along partisan lines this week on a slew of bills dealing with guns. But bipartisan negotiations are ongoing on a proposal to crack down on “straw purchases,” which is when someone purchases a gun for an individual who is prohibited from owning a firearm. There is already a federal law criminalizing straw purchases.
  • The budget — Negotiations are just starting over Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal for spending the surplus tax revenues expected to flow into state coffers. Republicans continue to push for income tax cuts but lack the numbers to force Democrats to go along. But Democrats would need some GOP votes to pass a budget “change package” with the two-thirds majority necessary to take effect immediately rather than 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.
  • Affordable housing — A special Housing Committee continues to work through a litany of proposals to deal with the state’s affordable housing crisis. It is unclear what will eventually emerge, however.
  • Tribal issues — The push for greater recognition of tribal sovereignty and tribes’ right to self-government appears likely to be pushed to next year. But other bills that are important to tribal leaders are still pending. They include a bill to require that printed copies of Maine’s Constitution include now-deleted language referring to early treaties with the tribes and a measure to require tribal approval of any bills that apply to the four tribes in Maine.

A chill between Mills and House Speaker?

Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross are on opposite sides of multiple issues important to the tribes. In the best-known incident, Mills successfully killed a sovereignty bill sponsored by Talbot Ross last legislative session by making clear she would veto it.

That schism between the two powerful Democrats could now threaten nontribal issues, potentially including the revised budget.

The Bangor Daily News reported recently that Talbot Ross threatened not to support the governor’s budget revisions unless Mills backed several bills related to the tribes. The tactic didn’t go over well with the governor’s office, however.

“We are disappointed by this approach — which seems more like a tactic out of a Washington, D.C. playbook than how we govern here in Maine,” Mills spokesman Scott Ogden said in a statement. “The governor does not engage in quid-pro-quos, and she does not believe it is appropriate to tie the budget — which addresses urgent needs like housing, homelessness, food insecurity, and others — to unrelated legislation.”

Republicans to unveil (more) tax cut proposals

Democratic leaders and the Mills administration have signaled very clearly that they are not interested in cutting income taxes as part of the current budget negotiations. Republicans insisted this week that they aren’t giving up, however, despite the fact that they lack the numbers to make it happen.

During a press conference on Thursday, Republican leaders said they will release additional detailed proposals next week on how Maine could tap some of its excess revenues to cut income taxes for lower- to middle-income Mainers. They wouldn’t release any specifics this week but said their tax cut plan will be based on several proposals introduced this session.

“We’re pretty early still in the negotiation process,” said Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, the Senate minority leader. “I think it’s fair to say that everything is on the table and that we are willing to negotiate with the governor and frankly anybody that’s actually willing to meaningfully negotiate with us. And if she’s committed to two-thirds (majorities) then we can find a way to get there.”

Programming note

The Pulse will join Maine Calling May 26 for its month-in-review program. The live program begins at 11 a.m. and ends at noon. It will be rebroadcast at 7 p.m. The podcast version of the show will post later that afternoon at mainepublic.org/pulse, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.