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

AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of Central Maine Power’s unpopular proposal to bring Quebec hydropower to the regional grid through a western Maine transmission line are signaling that they want voters to decide the project’s fate, but their deadline is tight and details are unclear.

It’s a response to the utility’s intense and successful lobbying defense of the $1 billion proposal for a 145-mile corridor, which has been opposed by or lost support from 20 towns in a flurry of grassroots opposition that has picked up since Gov. Janet Mills backed it in February.

The Democratic governor’s support helped defend the project from legislative bids to allow towns affected by the corridor to effectively veto it and for the state to study climate impacts of the line. Opponents are likely to find a friendlier environment if they can get to Maine voters.

That will be a tall task, because they have to get more than 63,000 signatures by a January deadline to do it and they haven’t coalesced around a question to take to referendum. Here’s what they — and CMP — have to worry about between now and the November 2020 election.

Simply collecting enough signatures to get to the ballot will be a challenge and the project’s timeline is uncertain. Sandra Howard, the director of Say NO to NECEC, a grassroots group opposing the corridor, levied the referendum threat last week, but she said the group hasn’t decided on a bill to take to voters yet and it hasn’t formally kicked off the process.

“We just want to say that we’re seriously investigating this option,” she said. “It’s so complex that we can’t just make a rash move.”

Howard said her group doesn’t have “a lot of extra money to go out and hire signature-gatherers,” though other funding could emerge. Stop the Corridor, a group that hasn’t disclosed donors, has spent at least $800,000 on ads against the project in a pseudo-political campaign against CMP and an affiliate, which have spent at least $1 million in ads.

Without professional signature-gatherers, meeting a January deadline could be hard. The calendar itself isn’t an obstacle — 14 citizen initiative campaigns have begun signature work in August or later and met a January deadline since 1999 — but organization could be.

The project has also won a key approval from the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The Department of Environmental Protection and another state agency could decide on permitting by fall, then the project would have to win approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The first decision has been appealed and is headed to Maine’s high court. The others are likely to be appealed. In a statement, CMP said construction could begin by early 2020. Ben Dudley, a lobbyist for business groups backing the corridor, wondered aloud if a referendum would seek to stamp out an active project, which could be a tougher legal and political sell.

But Pete Didisheim, the advocacy director at the anti-corridor Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he expects any referendum to come before construction begins. That would be a status-quo environment that would probably be favorable to opponents.

It looks like opponents have a good political case, but they will have to avoid some legal pitfalls when drafting a proposed law. If they get to the ballot, opponents can tap widespread dissatisfaction with the utility. CMP is reeling in the midst of a state investigation of its billing practices after tens of thousands of customers saw massive electric bill increases that prompted a class-action lawsuit.

A March poll paid for by the Natural Resources Council of Maine found 65 percent opposition to the project statewide, with that percentage in the upper 80s in Franklin and Somerset counties — the ones most affected by the corridor.

Interest groups are allowed to take any proposal they want to the Legislature, which typically sends them to Maine voters. Questions don’t have to conform to constitutional requirements to get to the ballot, but they have to eventually if they’re going to stand up over time.

Howard said opponents are “holding our cards close” on a question until they are ready to mount a bid. CMP said “it is impossible for us to react to the potential of a referendum” without knowing the question, but the utility said it would “would take it very seriously.”

Opponents, however, could draw on proposals defeated in the Legislature, including one from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, that was vetoed by Mills and would have required approval from two-thirds of towns affected by the corridor and other projects like it before it is built.

No legal challenges were made to that bill during the legislative hearing process, with proponents saying it was a natural extension of local control and opponents saying it would upend a well-established regulatory process that was already happening.

But the stakes are high and any new law could face a court challenge. That happened in 1996 after the Legislature approved a citizen-initiated bill that ended unpopular vehicle emissions tests. The state was unsuccessfully sued by a company with a contract to do the tests, with Maine’s high court ruling the contract didn’t guard against a repeal of the program.

“It might be challenged in court, but I don’t think it’s a lead-pipe cinch that it would lose,” Gordon Weil, a former public advocate and a CMP critic from Harpswell, said of a potential referendum. “I’d rather be the voters in that situation than CMP.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...