Opponents of Central Maine Power’s proposed 145-mile power line through western Maine said they will start a petition drive to take the question to a statewide vote. Credit: Fred Bever | Maine Public

Opponents of Central Maine Power’s proposed 145-mile power line through western Maine said they will start a petition drive to take the question to a statewide vote.

Sandra Howard, director of the grassroots opposition group Say NO To NECEC, said gathering the 70,000 signatures needed to try to kill the CMP project at the ballot box in November 2020 will be an enormous undertaking.

“And it’s one that we need to move forward on, but we can’t do it in haste,” she said.

Howard, a former rafting guide in Caratunk, where the line would cut a 150-foot wide swath through the woods, founded the group last summer. Since then CMP won a key permit from state utility regulators for the billion-dollar transmission line, formally called the New England Clean Energy Connect. And with the help of vetoes by Gov. Janet Mills, CMP last month sidestepped legislative efforts to slow or kill the project.

[Ads spent on the CMP corridor topped $1.8 million. The source of much of that money is a secret.]

“That really infuriated a lot of people, especially those who have made voting decisions to support the governor based on a platform of using renewable energy,” Howard said.

Despite those disappointments, Howard said there’s clear evidence that the project, like CMP itself, is widely unpopular in the state: While they weren’t veto proof, for instance, the legislative bills taking aim at the project drew strong bipartisan majorities in both chambers. More than 20 host municipalities where CMP won early support have either rescinded it or gone on the record as outright opposed.

And last month, unions representing Maine steelworkers and employees at Bath Iron Works voted to oppose the project. The union that represents CMP workers supports the project.

Howard said the breadth of the opposition — including her group’s 7,000 Facebook followers — indicates that once a formal request to circulate a petition is submitted to the Maine secretary of state, there will be no shortage of motivated ground troops.

“Because we don’t have the money to pay people to gather signatures, but there are enough Mainers who are concerned about it who are going to jump on board,” she said.

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

Still, experienced petition gatherers say that even passionate grassroots efforts can founder without raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover printing and legal fees, as well as training and overseeing volunteers to make sure petitions are properly filled out and handled.

“I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm, but I think it would be a challenge to collect all the signatures with just volunteers,” said state Sen. Ben Chipman of Portland, who helped organize anti-clear-cutting initiatives in Maine two decades ago.

Chipman said signature gatherers can benefit when an upcoming election draws voters to the polls, and to the booths that petitioners set up outside voting places. But this fall there will be no statewide elections or major issues on the ballot.

“It’s warm weather now, but we’ve only got a few months left of that. If they don’t have any funding it could be a challenge without a decent turnout election to go to with volunteers. There’s municipal elections and stuff but they don’t draw much of a turnout,” he said.

[Another Franklin County town comes out against CMP transmission project]

The spokesman for a secretive group called Stop the Corridor that financed a statewide advertising campaign against the project did not return a request for comment on whether it might fund a petition drive.

Another of the project’s high-profile opponents, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, is on the fence about whether to join a petition drive. Pete Didisheim, NRCM’s advocacy director, said the group is focused for now on CMP’s attempts to win federal and state environmental permits.

But he has no doubts about the outcome of a citizen initiative.

“I’ve given a number of talks recently, and there’s almost not an audience that I go to where there aren’t people who are asking, and I would even say clamoring, to vote against the project,” Didisheim said.

CMP said in a statement that all its efforts are “geared towards successfully passing the required benchmarks laid out for the project, which includes an open dialogue with Mainers about the massive project benefits for our state.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.