At a hearing in Augusta Thursday, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) considered whether to approve a negotiated settlement that Central Maine Power (CMP) is offering in order to build a 145-mile transmission line from Canada through western Maine to deliver power to Massachusetts. The deal has the backing of Governor Janet Mills and the state’s Public Advocate, but environmental groups are split, and several municipalities along the transmission line are also opposed.
To approve the deal recently brokered by CMP, the Public Utilities Commission has to assess four criteria: does the agreement — called a stipulation — represent a broad range of interests? Is it in line with legislative mandates? Was the process to reach the agreement fair? And finally - would the public benefit?
The answer from supporters, including Ben Smith of Western Mountains and Rivers, is a resounding yes.
"You've got in front of you a case where, it's going to present one of two things: either Maine seized an opportunity that was before it when it had a chance, or, years from now, maybe 30 years — hopefully this is not the case — people will be looking, wondering, why is it we didn't do what we had a chance to do."
As for the public benefit of the project — the focus of many of the comments at the hearing — Smith says the transmission line would largely pass through developed areas. The 53-miles that would cut through western Maine forests, he says, would increase access to public land and provide an economic boost to the region.
Other supporters say the public would benefit from the millions of dollars the deal dedicates to lowering electricity bills for decades. Opponents have said those savings amount to pennies every month, but Tony Buxton, an attorney who represents the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, says ratepayers would see savings of a $1 to $1.50 on their monthly bills.
"Obviously, it's not a huge amount of money, but we didn't get to where we are in electric rates with big jumps, we got there with little jumps, and this is one that goes the other way,” Buxton says.
The stipulation agreement would also increase broadband in towns along the transmission line, help fund energy efficient heating in homes, and promote and support electric vehicles and charging stations. Beyond those benefits, says Angela Monroe of the Governor's Energy Office, bringing hydropower into New England would mitigate the effects of climate change in the region.
"Given the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this project is certainly a matter of public necessity," Monroe says.
But opponents, such as Sue Ely of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, disagree that the project would have over-arching environmental benefits.
"We do not believe that it provides a guarantee that this project will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions,” Ely says. “That is our driving motivation here."
Representatives from towns along the proposed project corridor are also concerned about environmental impact.
Elizabeth Caruso is a selectwoman from Caratunk.
"The very fact that this corridor would cross 724 lakes, ponds and wetlands is cause to determine no crisis reasonable enough to destroy and pollute an area of such significance in space and worth," says Caruso.
Caruso also pointed out that the promise of more broadband infrastructure hasn't been enough to entice support from more than a half-dozen rural towns that oppose the transmission line. And the Ely noted that only 11 of the 32 parties to the agreement — which include citizen intervenors, towns and representatives from renewable energy, recreational and scenic interests, have signed on.
After the day-long hearing, the PUC is now tasked with deciding whether to approve the agreement. It's one of several regulatory hurdles that the project must clear to move forward.
Originally published March 7. 2019 at 5:35 a.m. ET.