AUGUSTA, Maine — Box after box went through the security gate at the Cross State Office Building, as opponents of the proposed transmission line to Quebec pursued their latest effort to block the controversial project.
Leaders of No CMP Corridor say they collected those signatures in near-record time, starting the petition just before Election Day in November and gathering signatures from more than 500 Maine towns and cities in just over two months. The boxes of petitions were wheeled upstairs to the Secretary of State’s office, which will now review all the signatures to make sure there are enough valid names to put the issue on the referendum ballot.
“Mainers know this is a bad deal for us, they are ready to vote, today. This is a good day for Maine,” said former state Senator Tom Saviello, one of the two leaders of the petition effort.
CMP’s transmission line project officially called the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), includes 53 miles of the new corridor, cut through the woods and mountain areas of northern Somerset County, from the Quebec border to The Forks. That is the section that has generated all the controversy, with opponents saying it will do irreparable environmental damage with little return for Maine, aside from temporary construction jobs.
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The project would also pay the state millions of dollars in negotiated benefits in the form of electricity rate relief for low-income people and assistance for expanding broadband, among others. The project has the endorsement of Gov. Janet Mills and has secured all the needed state and federal environmental and energy permits Construction was set to begin until a federal court ordered a temporary restraining order to prevent work on the new 53-mile section until the court can hear the appeal of several groups that say the Army Corps of Engineers failed to conduct a full environmental impact study before issuing a permit.
Jon Breed of Clean Energy Matters, a PAC created by Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, said the project has actually been gaining more support because of changes that have been made through the process.
“Two or three years ago we were talking about a very different looking project than we are today,” Breed said.
“The new segment of the corridor is a mere 54 feet (wide), the total acreage used for the project is around a thousand acres, two-thirds of the project runs along the existing corridor.”
Breed was asked about a new survey released Thursday by Hydro Quebec, claiming 42 percent of Mainers support the project, while 35 percent oppose it and 23 percent don’t know. Breed said those numbers are similar to a survey his group did late last month. Opponents questioned the validity of the Hydro Quebec survey, as well as the actions of the utility, which is owned by the government of Quebec. Those issues were raised by five members of the Maine Legislature voicing criticism of the corridor project. That included, well known and newly-elected GOP Sen. Rick Bennett, who had sharp criticism for CMP and its parent company.
"Our state has granted a monopoly franchise to CMP to operate and transmit power in much of Maine,” Bennett said. “CMP has abused that franchise.”
Bennett went on the slam both CMP and its owners, saying Maine people should be skeptical of promises the companies make.
“CMP and its Spanish owners have lied to the people of Maine about the corridors clean energy benefits, about the number of jobs created. This project is worth $3 billion to CMP and over $12 billion to Hydro Quebec, both foreign-owned corporations.”
Breed criticized the petition effort for using more than $1 million provided by rival energy firm Nextera to pay for collecting signatures. Sandi Howard of NO CMP Corridor said they had used some paid signature gatherers, but said more had been gathered by volunteers.
The Secretary of State will have a month to certify the signatures before the petition and underlying referendum can be sent on to the Legislature. If passed, it would require Legislative approval for any major transmission line longer than 50 miles, and would specifically prohibit such a line in the area where the NECEC wants to build. If there are sufficient signatures the Legislature would likely send the measure to voters in the November election, though they could potentially put it on the ballot in June.
Clean Energy Matters said it will review the signatures as well to determine if there will be any challenge to the petition.