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Latest group to oppose Question 3 highlights divide within environmental community

Two electric power transmission towers against pastel sky
Maine Public

A prominent conservation group has come out against Question 3 on the November ballot, highlighting a divide within Maine's environmental community over the Pine Tree Power proposal.

The Conservation Law Foundation said the proposal for a statewide, consumer-owned electric utility would create too much uncertainty at a time when Maine must move aggressively to address the climate crisis. Specifically, CLF said the lengthy court battles and high transition costs will slow the investments in the electric grid that are needed to achieve to a "clean energy future."

CLF, which is based in Boston but has offices in Maine, also raised concerns that Pine Tree Power Company's elected board might be subject to partisan influence or become paralyzed by politics.

Phelps Turner, a senior attorney for the group in Maine, said there are "serious and legitimate concerns" about the performance and reliability of Maine's two big utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power. But Phelps said those are better addressed by strengthening and enforcing existing laws rather than forcing the companies to sell to the proposed consumer-owned utility.

"We're not talking the status quo or business as usual here,” Phelps said. “We are talking about enforcing the laws that are on the books with respect to utility accountability because there have been some shortcomings there but also expanding the scope of those laws and enforcing those new laws."

If approved by voters, Question 3 would require CMP and Versant to sell all of their assets to the new nonprofit utility, which would then hire an outside contractor to run the day-to-day operations of the electric grid. Proponents of Pine Tree Power contend the new utility’s elected board members will be more responsive to customers than the current for-profit grid operators and would ultimately lower rates – saving ratepayers up to $9 billion over 30 years – because the nonprofit would be able to take advantage of tax exemptions and low-interest loans for infrastructure projects.

CMP and Versant are working hard to defeat the measure, spending more than 40 times as much as Pine Tree Power and its primary campaign arm, Our Power. The two utilities argue the takeover would take up to a decade to complete and could cost up to $13.5 billion with no assurance of higher rates or improved reliability.

In its analysis of the Pine Tree Power proposal, CLF said Maine should strengthen the utility accountability law that passed last year to require meet benchmarks for affordability, transparency and compliance with Maine’s climate goals. The group also said the state should increase penalties on CMP and Versant for failing to meet those metrics and called for the establishment of a permanent consumer advisory panel to improve transparency. 

“We’re at a critical point in Maine,” reads the report. “The decisions we make today will determine how well we can respond to the climate crisis in the coming years. Mainers are rightly frustrated with CMP and Versant. However, the state’s response to the climate crisis will be unduly hampered by the uncertain outcomes and the years of litigation that almost all agree is inevitable if Question 3 passes.”

CLF came out against Question 3 two weeks week after the state's largest environmental group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, endorsed Pine Tree Power.

Unlike the Conservation Law Foundation, NRCM said the transition to a consumer-owned utility would help meet the state’s climate goals in part by saving money that can then be invested “build the grid of the future.” The group said the shift would also restore local accountability from the corporate board rooms and improve public trust.

“Achieving our bold climate and clean energy goals will be difficult, but we believe it can and must be done in a way that keeps rates affordable,” NRCM said in its position paper on Question 3. “Doing so will require leadership, collaboration, and creativity at a level our IOUs (investor-owned utilities) have failed to bring time and time again. There is no easy, simple fix.”

The Sierra Club, 350 Maine and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association are also urging a "yes" vote on Question 3. Other groups have so far remained neutral on the issue, however.