BATH, Maine — As Bath Iron Works employees passed through the shipyard’s south gate Friday afternoon, a group standing behind folding tables began their pitches.
“Hey, brother. Want to sign?” said Matt Wagner, a member of the primary group trying to get a referendum on the 2020 ballot to stop Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line, which would cost $1 billion and take Canadian hydropower to the regional grid through a 145-mile western Maine corridor.
Lori Snow of Bath had already signed the group’s petition. Her reasoning was simple. She’s “an outdoors person” and the project “is horrible.”
“Why do we need it?” Snow said. “What good will it do the people in Maine?”
Opponents have said they have collected roughly half of the 63,000 signatures they must submit to the state by January to get on the ballot. Central Maine Power has begun its political campaign to save the line, which is awaiting state and federal permits and whose unpopularity may be mostly attributable to the utility proposing it.
It rolled out its first TV ad on Tuesday, a few weeks after launching a political committee called Clean Energy Matters, which is run by the Maine utility and Avangrid, its parent company. That came after corridor backers did $145,000 worth of polling and focus groups.
The atypical ad seems to nod to the project’s unpopularity, urging viewers to take a deliberative approach — saying “take your time” and “get the facts” — while citing a 2018 study showing the corridor would create 1,600 direct and indirect jobs and reduce carbon output in New England’s electricity market by the equivalent of taking 767,000 cars off the road per year.
Jon Breed, the campaign director for Clean Energy Matters, is aware of the perception that the project is unpopular, though he thinks people haven’t had a chance to have an “informed conversation” about the project and that “common perceptions” of the project are incorrect.
“I think a lot of people aren’t educated on what the project is and what the benefits are,” Breed said.
The company’s biggest challenge may not be the corridor itself. Its reputation continues to struggle amid an investigation from Maine energy regulators into reports of high bills and poor customer service and 20 towns affected by the corridor have opposed it or pulled their support.
J.D. Power and Associates released a survey ranking Central Maine Power last amid residential utilities for customer satisfaction nationally, lower than Pacific Gas and Electric, which has been criticized for intentional blackouts as it attempts to prevent wildfires in California.
Wagner, who said his group gathered more than 300 signatures on Friday, said the majority of signers have “knee-jerk” reactions to the petition drive that seemed rooted in their feelings about Central Maine Power. A March poll from an environmental group opposed to the project found 65 percent of Mainers disapproved of the corridor.
Breed said he isn’t worried about the opposition’s ballot drive, saying it’s “great” voters will have the chance to decide on the project. But it showed the company “it was time to communicate with the public” about the corridor, he said.
He said Clean Energy Matters will be running a campaign primarily funded by Central Maine Power and Avangrid, though other funders haven’t been ruled out. Other than the polling, filings with the Maine Ethics Commission show a sleepy campaign through Sept. 30.
Opponents organized under a committee called No CMP Corridor raised nearly $8,100 to that point, with $5,000 coming from Say No to NECEC, a grassroots group that has ginned up opposition in towns so far.
If they get on the ballot, there will be many more ads and targeted emails from the pro-corridor side, said Breed, who said the polling will not be released. Backers seem to be hoping that voters will separate the corridor from the utility’s other problems and hear them out.
That may be a political Hail Mary. Casey Leopin of Topsham paused after clocking out at Bath Iron Works to sign the petition. He said he “doesn’t like what CMP is doing.” Then, he said something to a reporter that might give the utility a small glimmer of hope.
“I don’t know much about the project,” he said. “Do you?”