Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and members of her staff on Wednesday met with the head of the massive Spanish power company that owns Central Maine Power, a utility which is under investigation by state regulators for ongoing billing problems and which is also engaged in a public relations campaign as it seeks approval of a 145-mile transmission line to send hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.
The meeting between Mills’ staff and Iberdrola CEO Ignacio Galán took place one day after the governor suggested on Maine Public Radio that she’s pleased with CMP’s efforts to sweeten its offer to Maine ratepayers and appease stakeholders for the controversial transmission line project. Mills said during her gubernatorial campaign that she had serious concerns about the project, citing its lack of benefits to Maine. But on Tuesday she indicated that she was pleased with CMP’s offer to distribute over $258 million in Maine over 40 years if the project wins approval.
“I like the progress that they are making. And I like the subject areas they are addressing. Electric vehicles for instance, and electric vehicle charging stations all over Maine. I could see that happening, and I appreciate and welcome their help in that regard,” she said on Maine Public’s call-in show Maine Calling on Tuesday.
Those comments prompted project opponents to flood the governor’s office with phone calls, while others used social media to express their objections.
Meanwhile, word circulated at the State House that Mills had met with Galán prior to appearing on Maine Calling — a rumor that the governor’s staff said was untrue.
Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said in a statement that Galán met with Mills’ staff for about 20 minutes on Wednesday — one day after the governor said she was pleased with the progress of negotiations.
Crete said the governor attended only the final minutes of the meeting to introduce herself to Galán and that the transmission project was not discussed.
Crete also said Mills’s staff pressed Galán on CMP’s “billing issues and pushed him to take steps to rectify them.”
CMP billing problems have gone on for over a year, prompting the Maine Public Utilities Commission to open an investigation and, last week, to issue a sternly-worded letter that threatened sanctions including a $500,000 fine and profit reductions if the company doesn’t quickly resolve the issue.
It’s unclear how much of the meeting between the governor’s staff and Galán was devoted to CMP’s billing problems and the transmission project. A spokesperson for the governor said Mills’ Chief Of Staff Jeremy Kennedy attended the meeting, as did Elise Baldacci, a senior policy advisor.
Angela Monroe, director of the governor’s Energy Office, did not attend, according to the spokesperson. Monroe became director of the office during the LePage administration. It’s not yet clear if Mills will replace Monroe, a common practice by incoming governors.
Mills’s position on the transmission line is heavily scrutinized even though it’s up to the PUC to ratify the project. Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage received similar scrutiny after it was disclosed that he made an unannounced visit to Spain in October to meet with Galán. At the time, LePage’s spokesperson would only say the governor discussed ways to lower electricity rates for Mainers.
The proposal has divided the Democratic governor’s supporting interest groups. Environmental groups, which supported her candidacy, split following the release of CMP’s $258 million benefit deal, which include:
- $190 million to reduce rates for Maine residents over 40 years — with $50 million of that set aside for low income consumers.
- $200 million to improve transmission interconnections, which CMP says will help renewable energy projects in Maine find “headroom” on the grid.
- $15 million to improve the state’s fiber optic network.
- $15 million to subsidize residential heat pump purchases.
- $15 million for an electric vehicle charging station network.
Meanwhile, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the labor union for electricity lineworkers, announced last year that it supported the project.
Crete, Mills’ spokesperson, said the governor and her staff are meeting with people and organizations on both sides of the issue.
“Governor Mills has always tried to approach the NECEC (transmission) proposal with a single standard – that any deal must result in substantial and concrete long-term benefits to the people of Maine,” Crete said. “She is encouraged by the progress that the parties are making in that regard, including the participation of Hydro-Quebec in the discussions, and she will carefully examine the details of the finalized stipulation. Ultimately, her judgment rests upon the merits of any deal and whether, on balance, it is in the best interests of the state.”
CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid Inc., which is owned by Iberdrola, a multinational energy corporation. The CMP’s offshore ownership has prompted some to assert that the company does not value Mainers’ interests, a claim amplified by ongoing billing problems, its response to power outages.
Last year, the CMP President Doug Herling acknowledged the controversies during an interview with the Portland Press Herald, saying “we’re probably the most mistrusted company now.”
Originally published 5:22 p.m. Feb. 14, 2019