A handful of measures that supporters hope could sink Central Maine Power's proposed 145-mile transmission line through western Maine were up for public hearing in Augusta Wednesday. Legislative action comes just as state energy regulators prepare to rule on a key permit for the project.
The line would bring low-polluting hydro-electricity from Canadian dams into the regional grid, to serve customers in Masachusetts, who would pay for the project.
One of the bills takes aim at it by requiring a vote of approval from any town that would host big power lines that, like CMP's, are not considered necessary for reliability.
"The Legislature can weigh in and should weigh in, in some way," said Rep. Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Energy and Utilities Committee, sponsored the measure. He says it would help Maine plan for a future that likely will include more demands from southern New England for renewable energy that comes from or through Maine.
If enacted Berry's bill could delay or even kill the project, given that several towns along the corridor have already voted against it, while others have rescinded previous support.
"Maine can either make sure that we're ready for it and we can use this opportunity to create jobs, to benefit our state," Berry said, "or we can be a cheap date, and we can be at the losing end of the conversation and allow our state to be criss-crossed by transmission lines without benefiting the state or its people."
CMP officials, a lobbyist for big energy users, and economic development officials lined up to oppose Berry's bill and other measures that would limit a utility's ability to use eminent domain to override local control. They say there are legitimate public policy goals, such as reducing New England's dependence on fossil fuels, that state regulators can properly weigh against local concerns.
And testifying for herself, public relations professional Crystal Canney of Portland said the project would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits, from lowered electricity costs to economic development.
"At the end of the day the cost-benefit analysis adds up," Canney said. "We should reject these bills and move forward with this project. We need the revenue, we need the investment and we desperately need the jobs. It is our future."
Canney was one of the few non-lobbyists to testify in support of CMP. But dozens of project opponents turned out for the hearing. Many were from Somerset and Franklin counties, where the project would require clearing some 53 miles of forest land.
They say the bills would help ensure that corporate interests - such as CMP's Spanish parent company - Iberdrola, can't run roughshod over local control in Maine. Duane Hanson's backwoods homestead, near Jackman, lies close to the proposed CMP corridor.
"It would put the shoe on the other foot, where the local people would have a say," Hanson said, "rather than just being walked all over by, like, a corporation."
The committee could hold initial votes on the measures later this month. Later Thursday, meanwhile, the state Public Utilities Commission will meet to consider the CMP project, and possibly vote on whether it should receive a so-called Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, one of three state permits the project needs to move forward.