The Maine House of Representatives has given early approval to a pair of bills that could affect the construction of a controversial transmission line from northern Maine down to Massachusetts.
Supporters of the two proposals say they will ensure that local communities acting as pass-throughs for Central Maine Power’s project have a say in the permitting and receive adequate tax benefits. But opponents worry that one of the bills could give a single town veto authority over a project designed to deliver hydropower from Quebec to the regional electric grid.
Central Maine Power has claimed several victories in its quest to build the transmission line it has dubbed the New England Clean Energy Connect. Among them: winning approval from Public Utilities Commission this spring, and more recently, the seemingly imminent defeat of a bill that would have required an evaluation of the project’s purported greenhouse gas reduction benefits.
But on Thursday, CMP was dealt a setback in the Maine House, where lawmakers in both parties approved measures that could expand the battle over permitting to the more than a dozen localities through which the 145-mile transmission line would pass.
“If you vote in favor of this bill, you will be allowing a single community, 69 population, to veto a project that affects our whole regional grid and would lower electrical prices,” says Democratic state Rep. Deane Rykerson of Kittery.
Rykerson was referring to Caratunk — population 69 according to the latest census — where residents last fall rescinded the town’s early support for the transmission line. More than a dozen towns have taken similar positions, either withdrawing support or coming out against the project altogether.
Supporters of a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Chad Grignon of Athens say those towns should have a say in the project and be able to stop CMP from seizing land within their borders through eminent domain.
“All we’re asking is that the corporation go to the towns that want them there and not infringe on the liberties of the towns that do not want them,” he says.
Grignon’s argument hinges on a value long cherished in Maine: local control, or the idea that localities and their citizens should have some authority in decisions that affect them.
Supporters of Grignon’s bill argue that the transmission project subverts local control because Maine law currently allows a public utility like CMP to seize land for certain purposes, such as upgrading lines serving Maine customers.
The bill changes that law in a way that specifically affects the transmission project — a change that Democratic Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham says is needed as a local check because the transmission project is designed to help Massachusetts meet it renewable energy goals and financially benefit CMP.
“It is the only one that potentially allows, for the first time ever in Maine history, the seizure of private property or the trampling of local control by a private, for-profit line,” he says.
Berry says that the CMP project as currently proposed may not require the use of eminent domain, but he says the bill acts as a safeguard if it does.
Thursday’s vote in the House was applauded by the group Say No to NECEC. The group also thanked lawmakers for approving Berry’s bill that ensures pass-through communities get the assessed value of the project in property taxes and other benefits.
The votes on both bills were not along party lines, illustrating yet again that the politics of the CMP project are more populist than partisan.
The measures now move to the Senate.