Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a press conference in Portland on Thursday about a proposed power transmission line through western Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Central Maine Power’s controversial $1 billion hydropower transmission line through western Maine won major endorsements Thursday morning when a wide-ranging group of 10 supporters, including the governor’s office, filed an agreement with regulators on a package of benefits to Mainers worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The package is aimed at quelling complaints that the transmission line, which extends 145 miles from Hydro-Quebec’s dam system at the Canadian border to Lewiston, doesn’t benefit Mainers adequately. The project, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), would deliver electricity to Massachusetts to help that state achieve its clean energy goals.

The 40-page stipulation agreement calls for a $50 million low-income customer benefits fund, a $140 million rate relief fund, a $10 million broadband fund, a $15 million heat pump fund and $10 million from Hydro-Quebec for electric vehicles.

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News of the Democratic governor’s support first emerged last week, when sources told the Bangor Daily News that she backed the sweetened package of benefits for Maine after initially expressing skepticism about the project during last year’s campaign.

Before flying to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Governors Association, Mills told reporters at the Portland International Jetport that the settlement represents “a middle ground” and called it “a good stipulation that will reduce carbon emissions in the region.”

She noted that it was an “initial step” facing several layers of state and federal approval.

“We can’t say ‘no’ to every prospect, to every project,” Mills said. “We have to open the door.”

Additionally, the stipulation calls for CMP to transfer the transmission line project to a separate new company called NECEC Transmission LLC, which will keep its accounting system and other activities separate from CMP.

NECEC Transmission will be a wholly owned subsidiary of Avangrid Networks, CMP’s parent company based in Connecticut.

The stipulation included the transfer agreement for NECEC Transmission. As part of the agreement, NECEC Transmission will pay CMP $60 million when the transmission project goes live. The money will be paid in 40 equal annual installments of $1.5 million.

Creation of the new company answers concerns expressed earlier by the public advocate, which led an aggressive campaign to have the independent affiliate established.

“The proposed agreement will require Avangrid to backstop the project,” said Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, who supported the deal. That should help CMP customers get adequate service in case of widespread outages or other conditions.

The stipulation also included a document detailing the components of the project.

[As Maine debates 145-mile electric line, energy giant with billions at stake is absent]

The project includes upgrades of existing lines plus building a new line through 50 miles of largely pristine western Maine forests. It has drawn fierce opposition from residents and municipal officials along the proposed corridor and some environmental groups, who argue that it will damage critical landscapes while offering minimal benefits to Mainers.

The agreement includes some perks for Emera Maine customers in the project area, according to CMP spokesman John Carroll.

The $1 million transmission refund for land cost recovery will be shared by all New England transmission customers, including Emera Maine’s Bangor Hydro District customers. Also, the low income benefits fund is for all Maine customers. Several other funds, including heat pump and electric vehicle funds, express preference for specific areas, but are not restricted to the CMP service territory, Carroll said.

The 10 supporters are CMP, Hobbins, Mills’ energy office, the Western Mountains and Rivers Corp., the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Acadia Center, Lewiston, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Those opposing the stipulation are NextEra Energy Resources, Dorothy Kelly, Calpine Corp., Vistra Energy, Bucksport Generation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, RENEW Northeast, the Maine Renewable Energy Association, ReEnergy Biomass Operations, the town of Caratunk, Friends of Maine Mountains, former state Sen. Thomas Saviello and the town of Alna, CMP wrote in a letter to PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear.

The town of Wilton, where Saviello is a selectman, will determine whether it supports the stipulation at its March 5 meeting.

The aim of the deal unveiled Thursday is to convince the Maine Public Utilities Commission to grant a certificate of public convenience and necessity.

“Their agreement enhanced the community benefit,” said Hobbins, who added the stipulation is strengthened by the broad range of supporters.

The agreement follows two settlement conferences held behind closed doors in recent weeks at the PUC’s office in Hallowell. Talks culminated Wednesday, when Central Maine Power coordinated updates to an early draft of the document, which had been leaked to media outlets on Feb. 6. Mills’ signed onto a draft version of the agreement last week, a fact also leaked out of confidential negotiations.

“With any document filed with us, we’ll still do an examiners’ report and the commission still will make a decision,” Lanphear said.

An examiner’s report summarizes all facts in the case, including the benefits stipulation and the more than 1,000 public comments already submitted to the PUC. More than nine-tenths of them oppose the corridor, highlighting the grassroots fervor against it.

The agreement was completed Wednesday afternoon , several sources confirmed. The agreement is a stipulation of conditions required should regulators approve the hydropower project.

The Acadia Center, an environmental and energy advocacy group, signed onto the stipulation, saying the agreement requires significant consumer and clean energy commitments to Mainers ranging from energy efficiency for low-income households, general rate relief, expansion of broadband infrastructure and support for impacted host communities.

However, the stipulation submitted to state regulators is just one piece of the ongoing process to get the project approved by all parties: CMP also needs to gain approvals, including for siting, from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, which oversees the unorganized territories.

[What you need to know about the CMP transmission line proposed for Maine]

One of the most vocal opponents, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, issued a statement Wednesday that criticizes the agreement. The advocacy group claimed the transmission line would harm Maine substantially, from the state’s forests, waters and wildlife to local clean energy projects and jobs, and without benefiting the climate and called the settlement “a desperate and calculated move to win support.”

Mills leaned heavily on a May 2018 study for the PUC finding the project would reduce annual carbon emissions from New England generators by 3.6 million metric tons — the equivalent of removing 767,000 vehicles from roads — and raise Maine’s gross domestic product by $589 million through 2022 while creating more than 1,600 direct and indirect jobs. However, it noted that jobs would be temporary and likely not all filled by Mainers.

However, NRCM said it found that when benefits to Maine are spread across 40 years, as proposed by CMP, households in the state would only see monthly electric bills reduced by 6 cents.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.