Darryl Wood and Theresa York, both residents of Farmington, demonstrate in front of the post office on Main Street against the Central Maine Power electricity corridor that will pass through their town. Wood had posted to social media asking drivers to honk in support as they drove by. Many did, as well as giving the protesters the thumbs up. Credit: Lori Valigra

Supporters and opponents of Central Maine Power Co.’s proposed $1 billion transmission line have combined to spend at least $1.8 million on TV, Facebook and radio advertising since late last year, according to a Bangor Daily News review of FCC filings and Facebook’s digital ad library.

CMP and its affiliate, New England Clean Energy Connect, have spent at least $1 million on ads related to the line (those funds do not come from ratepayers, according to the company). And at least $800,000 was spent on advertising by anti-line group Stop The Corridor, which refuses to identify the source of its funding.

The amount underscores the high stakes of the debate over the line, which could fundamentally alter New England’s electricity market. It’s not uncommon for groups to spend nearly $2 million on ads for and against big projects. But it’s all but unheard of when the issue in question is not going before voters.

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

Experts contacted by the BDN had trouble naming another case in which a state issue that wasn’t slated to be decided by voters generated this level of ad spending.

“I have never seen anything like this for a state issue,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a longtime Colby College government professor.

Some of the ads are political — asking viewers to contact elected officials and tell them how to vote on specific legislation, for instance. But the spending isn’t covered by Maine’s campaign finance laws. Since the ads don’t relate to a specific election or ballot measure, ad buyers are not required to file reports with the state.

In the last legislative session, three bills championed by project opponents that would have altered regulatory rules failed to become law despite winning majorities in both chambers. Two were vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills, who has publicly supported the project, and a third, which would have required the Department of Environmental Protection to study the line’s impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to ensure the law took effect before the DEP is expected to make a decision on permitting the project.

[The money at stake in the battle over CMP’s 145-mile electric line]

The $1.8 million is a minimum figure for how much has been spent on ads related to the project proposal, which polling and a series of mostly ceremonial town votes suggest is unpopular with Maine residents. The money compiled by the BDN doesn’t include things like mailers, staff salaries, consulting fees or anti-line yard signs, expenses that would typically be included in campaign finance reports submitted to the state.

CMP and NECEC have combined to spend more than $740,000 on television ads, while Stop the Corridor has spent more than $520,000.

In addition, NBC affiliates WLBZ in Bangor and WCSH in Portland refused to disclose the amount of money spent running line-related ads on their stations, so that money is missing from the totals listed above.

The $1.8 million total spent on Facebook, radio and television ads is slightly more than the $1.79 million Mainers for Homecare and No on Question One combined to spend on advertising related to the defeated 2018 referendum on government-funded home health care. The spending on advertisements related to the proposed line is slightly less than the $2.1 million spent on in-state television ads regarding the confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year.

As unusual as this kind of spending might be, it’s a rounding error compared to the amount of money that could change hands if the project is approved.

[How Central Maine Power failed its customers and still increased profits]

CMP will be paid a total of $2.9 billion by Massachusetts electric utilities over the next 20 years for building and operating the line, according to contracts reviewed by the BDN. That figure includes the cost of the $1 billion line, as well as maintenance and other costs. A completed line would deliver about a sixth of Massachusetts’ current electricity usage every year, meaning that natural gas and other energy companies currently selling power to Massachusetts ratepayers could see their market share, and profits, reduced.

One of those companies, NextEra Energy, has been linked to “dark-money” groups opposing energy projects in other states, including New Hampshire, where last year regulators nixed a similar proposal to bring Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts. NextEra did not respond to questions asking if the energy giant had any connection to Stop The Corridor.

It’s still not clear who is funding Stop the Corridor. The group’s spokesperson is Riley Ploch, a political operative who worked as a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, and more recently worked on former Democratic lawmaker Marty Grohman’s failed 2018 third-party congressional bid. Fellow Grohman campaign alum Lance Dutson, a longtime Maine Republican political strategist and former BDN opinion columnist, is also working with Stop the Corridor, said Sandra Howard of Say No to NECEC and Pete Didisheim of Natural Resources Council of Maine, which both worked with the group. Neither Ploch nor Dutson responded to multiple requests for comment.

In addition to Stop the Corridor, another group, Say No to NECEC, has formed for the sole purpose of opposing the project. But unlike Stop the Corridor, Say No to NECEC is a grassroots group whose members attend town meetings and rallies to voice their opposition to the project. The non-profit organization’s Facebook group has nearly 7,000 members. It raises between $750 and $1,000 a week through member donations and fundraising events, including auctions and “$5 Friday” digital fundraisers, said director Sandra Howard.

Howard acknowledged that she had been in contact with Ploch and Dutson as part of strategizing for the anti-line coalition, which includes a variety of groups, including the NRCM and the Maine Renewable Energy Association. She also said she didn’t know who was behind Stop The Corridor.

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During the legislative session, Howard’s Say No to NECEC used some of the money it raised to hire lobbyists to help fight against the line.

“Our effort is just to try and get a voice in Augusta,” Howard said. “It was our effort to send a couple of people to try and strategize our messaging and try to reach representatives.”

CMP also increased its lobbying presence in Augusta in 2019. In 2018, CMP had two registered lobbyists working the capitol. This year, the company hired five registered lobbyists working on issues related to the line proposal. Canadian energy giant Hydro-Quebec, the utility that would sell power over a completed line, also hired Cianbro lobbyist Tim Walton earlier this year. CMP’s allies, including the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated General Contractors of Maine, have also lobbied against the three bills that failed to become law.

“It was some of the most intense lobbying to try and kill bills that I’ve ever seen CMP and its allies pursue at the state house,” said Didisheim, NRCM’s advocacy director and a registered lobbyist. The New England Power Generators Association was among the allies that joined with the NRCM and Say No to NECEC to lobby for the bills.

In addition to spending on ads and lobbyists, CMP and Hydro-Quebec also committed to a 40-year benefits package worth $72 million in today’s dollars that helped secure a key permit from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.