Staffers at the Maine Public Utilities Commission are scheduled to issue a preliminary opinion Friday on whether Central Maine Power should get a permit to build a transmission line from the state’s western border with Canada to Lewiston. And on Monday, environmental regulators will open public hearings on the project.
But even after those decisions are made, the political battle is likely continue on a number of fronts.
This is the fourth story in our series “Power Struggle in the Maine Woods.”
This past Monday night, more than 300 people gathered at the Farmington Community Center to weigh in on the proposed transmission line, which would cut through 53 miles of standing forest in western Maine.
“I am definitely 100 percent against the corridor, 100 percent, and I will tell you why,” says Farmington resident Wendy Huish.
Huish says she has spent years visiting a log cabin in the woods, near where the line would come through. Those woods, she said, are a sanctuary for wildlife and people.
“If you chop those down, they’re going to be gone forever. So think about it very carefully. For you people that have children and grandchildren, what are you going to leave for the future?” she says.
The project’s most prominent supporter, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, is also a Farmington voter.
“I do have a stake in the future of the planet, and the future of our state and our region,” she says.
Mills told the audience the project would deliver low-polluting hydroelectricity to New England and reduce greenhouse gas pollution, lower electricity rates and trigger a raft of investments.
And she took aim at recently aired campaign-style television ads financed by a secretive dark money group called Stop the Corridor. Its members include local activists but also corporate fossil-fuel interests.
“CMP’s corridor would cut a path as wide as the New Jersey Turnpike through our Maine woods. Just so Canada can sell power to Massachusetts. What is Gov. Mills thinking?” the ad says.
“There’s been a lot of scary pictures looking like the war of the world and talk about the New Jersey Turnpike for crying out loud,” Mills says.
(The New Jersey Turnpike’s cleared corridor ranges from 300 to 350 feet wide, according to a turnpike spokesman. The CMP project would occupy a cleared corridor as wide as 150 feet. CMP would retain control of a wider area, though, and could seek permission later for further clearing, subject to a separate, full regulatory review.)
And the ad campaign has put some members of the Stop Corridor coalition on the defensive. The Maine Renewable Energy Association and a biomass company that receives state-mandated subsidies, ReEnergy Holdings, dropped out of the coalition after the attacks on Mills. And they sent her apologetic letters.
“I think that there is some negativity and speculation on who is funding Stop the Corridor,” says Sandra Howard, a former Caratunk rafting guide who helped organize a local opposition group.
Howard says despite any blowback from the ads, the growing number of towns revoking support for the project demonstrates a genuine grassroots effort is catching fire.
“That shows that our cause is continuing to grow not just along the corridor, for those townspeople, but across the state,” she says.
And despite Mills’ forceful presentation in Farmington, her hometown audience voted against the project Monday night by a lopsided margin.
Power line politics are also very much alive at the State House in Augusta, where Mills’ Democratic party controls both branches of the Legislature. Party leaders have a big stake in the new governor’s success, but rank-and-file lawmakers have filed several bills that could stall or even sink the project.
“I think it’s time the PUC puts a stop to this settlement agreement, that we take some time to look at this again, to accurately assess what, if any, benefits there are for Maine and what are the dangers,” says Democratic state Sen. Mark Lawrence of Eliot, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Utility Committee and led a bipartisan press conference condemning the project Thursday.
One bill drawing attention would require that big transmission projects win approval from voters in every host town. Another would require an independent analysis of the project’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Still another would limit a utility’s use of eminent domain.
Mills’ State House allies acknowledge a tricky road ahead.
“There are land mines,” says Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, who got behind the project after CMP agreed to provide $50 million to assist low-income ratepayers.
Hobbins says some players — Republicans and fossil-fuel generators in particular — are using the transmission line issue to undermine Mills politically.
“Obviously this is a new governor. She’s trying to get off to a good start, which she did, but unfortunately they’re all trying to make it so the honeymoon’s over early,” he says. “And I don’t mean to be disrespectful to any one person. It’s just that there are so many dynamic sidebar issues going on.”
Project opponents, meanwhile, are already starting to talk about the ultimate backstop — a statewide vote on the power line. A public referendum could be initiated by the Legislature or a signature-gathering effort.
After this week’s vote in Farmington, selectman Scott Landry — just elected to his first term in the Legislature — said that might be the only way the question will be resolved.
“Let the people speak. That’s what we’re about isn’t it, a democracy?” he says.
In a brief interview as she left that meeting, Mills says she trusts state regulators to make informed decisions based on the project’s merits and the law. A public referendum, she says, would trigger a political campaign that would not necessarily foster a reasoned outcome. It’s a campaign, though, that in some respects seems already well underway.