Opponents of Central Maine Power's (CMP) proposed 145-mile transmission line to provide hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts urged state lawmakers Friday to approve a bill that would assess whether the project will actually reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions.
The public hearing in Augusta marked the first time that the controversial project known as the New England Clean Energy Connect and its robust public relations campaign has migrated to the State House. It revealed that some in the Democratic-controlled Legislature question whether the project will deliver the climate benefits Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has said it will.
When Mills announced last month that she was backing the transmission line, she held up a one-pound block of carbon to help demonstrate how much carbon dioxide she says will no longer spew into the atmosphere thanks to the low-polluting hydropower that will replace fossil-fuel generators currently powering the regional electric grid.
"Nearly 80 million of these 1-pound cubes of carbon no longer emitted into our atmosphere,” she said. “To me, that's significant."
That projection apparently comes from an analysis by London Economics, a Boston consulting firm that estimates that the project will reduce regional carbon emissions by 3.6 million metric tons each year.
But opponents of the project, and some state lawmakers, don't trust the numbers.
"To me this feels like trying to buy a car from a salesman who won't let me take a close look under the hood," said state Sen. Brownie Carson, a Democrat from Harpswell.
Carson is sponsoring the bill that requires the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to assess whether the project will really lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions before the agency can approve it.
As the former Director Of The Natural Resources Council of Maine, Carson argues that there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. He says backers of the Northern Pass project in New Hampshire made similar reduction claims, yet regulators there could never verify them, which is one of the reasons why the project moved from the Granite State to Maine's western woods after years of study and public debate.
"Whether the CMP transmission corridor will result in actual greenhouse gas emissions is the issue here," Carson said. "And it's a question that needs to be answered."
From supporters' perspective, that question has already been answered.
Thorn Dickinson, the vice president of business development for CMP's parent company, Avangrid, says there have already been three analyses of the project's effect on regional greenhouse gas emissions submitted to state regulators.
"All of them concluded that this project will result in 3 million metric tons of carbon reductions," he said.
Dickinson and supporters of the project say Carson's bill would only delay permitting of the project and, potentially, reduce its regional carbon reduction benefits. They argue that the dams of Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian-owned utility that will generate the power, are so full that it's been forced to spill water that would otherwise flow through its generators and pump low-emission power into the regional grid.
"If this line existed in 2018, that water could have been turned into electricity that would have displaced oil and natural gas generation that would reduce carbon," Dickinson said.
But opponents say the key question is whether Hydro-Quebec, which is already providing power to Vermont and upstate New York, actually has the generation capacity to provide power to its existing customers so that traditional fossil-fuel generators aren't needed. The answer is central to the determining whether the proposed transmission project will yield the carbon emission benefits CMP claims it will.
Nick Bennett, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that CMP essentially claims that the project will pump new power into the region and displace natural gas generators.
"It's not. It's going to be shifted from other places and those other places have to do something to make up for the power," he said.
And if that happens, Bennett said that fossil-fuel generators will fire, potentially nullifying or dramatically reducing the new line's emission reductions.
"We have asked CMP, we have asked Hydro-Quebec, what are those other places going to do when you move the power and they wont tell us. That's why we need this bill," he said.
Sen. Brownie Carson, the bill's sponsor, noted that Hydro-Quebec has refused to participate in the regulatory proceedings in Maine, just as it did in New Hampshire.
"This allows Hydro-Quebec to make claims to the public without being held publicly accountable. It also allows CMP to make claims about the climate benefits about the project, while skirting questions about how Hydro-Quebec system actually works," Carson said.
But staff with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection say Hydro-Quebec's reticent stance in the regulatory proceedings could make a conclusive study on the emission reductions difficult, if not impossible. The agency also testified that it will need more time and resources to conduct such a study, should the Legislature pass Carson's bill. And passage of that bill could also depend on whether Gov. Mills will sign off on a study that could undercut one of the primary reasons she backed the transmission project.
Originally published March 15, 2019 at 4:35 p.m. ET.