The Maine Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure Thursday that would require a new analysis of the purported greenhouse gas reductions associated with Central Maine Power's (CMP) proposal to bring hydro-electricity from Canada to New England.
CMP wants to build a new, billion-dollar transmission system through western Maine, to serve a contract with Massachusetts. It is called the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC).
Senator Brownie Carson, a Harpswell Democrat, says the project has stirred wide opposition in Maine, particularly from Somerset and Franklin counties, which would host some 53-miles of new power-line corridor through the region's woodlands.
"Many believe that the project must be questioned,” Carson says. “They are concerned about the impacts on the ground. And many want to know whether the claims about the project being good for the climate are real, because that can help them and us as well as policy-makers balance the overall costs and benefits to Maine."
CMP has argued that despite the project's on-the-ground effects, it would be an environmental boon, adding to the region's supply of low-carbon energy resources. The state's Public Utilities Commission and Gov. Janet Mills agree with that view.
But Canada's Hydro-Quebec has largely been a no-show in state regulatory proceedings, and opponents say there is no verifiable evidence that global greenhouse gas emissions would actually be reduced. Senator Carson says that regulators may have determined that the project would reduce New England's contribution to climate change — but that does not mean that Hydro-Quebec would actually increase production of low-CO2 hydro-electricity.
"We need to understand the full picture — not just the limited view of New England,” he says. “As policy-makers we owe it to our constituents, the people of Maine to provide this level of due diligence because we are being asked by Massachusetts and the developers of this project to accept a lot of impact on Maine that are special to Maine people."
The bill that Carson introduced would require a comprehensive, third party-analysis of the project's net effects on CO2 production throughout the territory served by Hydro-Quebec. Originally it would have required that the Department of Environmental Protection consider the results of the report before issuing CMP a permit for the project - but that language was dropped during committee review.
So it is unclear if the analysis would have any direct impact on CMP's efforts to win a DEP permit. But opponents nonetheless are encouraged by the measure's initial passage.
Sandra Howard directs an opposition group called "Say NO to NECEC."
"We're finding that our state leaders are really not only listening to concerns that the majority of Mainers have about the project, but they're taking action,” Howard says. “And they likely have some of the same concerns themselves, judging by the way the vote went today."
And it was a lopsided, bipartisan vote of 30-to-4. That would be more than enough to support an override of a potential veto from Governor Janet Mills. Her office did not respond to a request for comment, but at a press conference in April unveiling her proposal for a new climate council, she said existing studies of the CMP project's CO2 effects were "sufficient."
The bill now goes to the House — which could provide an early test of whether lawmakers are ready to mount a serious challenge to the new governor over several pending measures that could slow or even stop the CMP project.
CMP lobbyists, meanwhile, are out in force in Augusta this week. But in a press statement, CMP officials say only that the company believes that the Legislature will quote "thoughtfully consider" the Carson bill's impacts, as its implications come to light.