Opponents of Central Maine Power's proposed 145-mile transmission line to bring hydropower from Canada to New England turned out in force at a public hearing in Lewiston Thursday night. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was taking testimony as it considers CMP's application for a federal permit.
The Corps' job is to weigh expected benefits and foreseeable risks of the project. And that balance came into sharp focus at the hearing.
For supporters, there's the existential threat of climate change and the belief that CMP's New England Clean Energy Connect project is a good way to help address it.
"It's our one chance in the next few years to reduce carbon emissions by more than three million metric tons," said Christopher Ayers, of Pownal.
Ayers describes himself as a lifelong outdoorsman and environmentalist who's served on the boards of the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon Society. He's worried about the growing threat posed by climate change and the rapid pace that catastrophic effects are projected to occur. Hydropower from Quebec, Ayers says, is not the only solution.
Kerry Blake, of Portland, takes a similar view. She's the mother of two young daughters. "I'm here to advocate for the future generation, for all of our kids, for a cleaner energy future that includes renewable generation like hydropower."
But critics say hydropower is not as clean or green as it's portrayed. Brad Hager is a professor of Earth Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has a home in Mercer, Maine. He says several peer-reviewed studies document greenhouse gas emissions from 1,500 hydro facilities, including Hydro-Quebec, which would supply CMP's electricity.
"These studies show that there's an extremely wide range of greenhouse gas emissions from hydro but six of Hydro Quebec's reservoirs are among the top 25 percent of greenhouse gas emitters of hydro plants worldwide."
Hager says their emissions, which come from decay of submerged trees and disturbed soils, range from that of a natural gas power plant to over twice those of coal power plants. And former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein says there's another problem: The Massachusetts contract for renewable energy that is driving the CMP project contains a loophole.
"And it essentially allows Hydro Quebec to substitute dirty fossil fuel energy. There's no way for Massachusetts to monitor what kind of energy is coming to us. There are no prohibitions against that. It creates incentives for cheating and for dirty fossil fuel. We should say no to this project. It shouldn't be on the backs of Maine."
Critics are also focused on the harm they say the project would have on the natural environment and recreational economy of western Maine, where it would cut a 53-mile corridor through woods and wetlands.
More than two dozen Maine towns have voted to oppose or rescind their support for the project. And in May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a strongly-worded letter to the Army Corps saying it had major concerns that CMP’s application failed to fully examine less-damaging alternatives.
That's why Democrat Brownie Carson, chair of the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and others are asking the Corps for a full environmental impact statement before a permit is issued.
"I'm particularly concerned about the corridor's negative impacts on critical brook trout, but I want to say in closing, at a minimum, we need a full environmental impact statement to look at alternatives, and to look at the very real harm that this project could - and, I believe, would - cause. Thank you very much."
Col. William Conde, commander and district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers says he'll decide over the next few months whether a full environmental impact statement is needed.
"I will tell you - my district issues over 2,500 permits in New England alone every year and obviously only a handful go to an EIS," Conde said.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission has given CMP the green light, but in addition to the Army Corps, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission must also sign off on the project.