Hydro-Quebec, which has spent millions fighting a November referendum aimed at defeating its proposed $1 billion hydropower project with Central Maine Power, told Maine lawmakers Thursday that it is not trying to influence the results of elections.
The government-owned utility was responding to a letter sent Wednesday by 25 current and former Maine lawmakers to its CEO and the Quebec premier asking them to stop trying to influence the outcome of a referendum on the controversial project that would bring Canadian hydropower to the regional grid through western Maine.
The Maine delegation said it was concerned Hydro-Quebec and the provincial government were exploiting a loophole in ethics laws that does not expressly prohibit foreign entities from influencing referendum questions. A bill sponsored by Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, would plug that loophole by prohibiting contributions, expenditures and participation by foreign nationals to influence referendum questions.
In a response, Hydro-Quebec drew a line between campaigns directed at a referendum and not a political candidate, though has not been accused of trying to influence a candidate election. It would be federally prohibited in both the U.S. and Canada.
“Hydro-Quebec’s campaign efforts are not aimed at influencing upcoming elections,” Serge Abergel, director of external relations for the utility, wrote in a Thursday letter to Ackley and others. “Rather, we aim to provide facts to inform Mainers in consideration of a ballot question that would deny Maine the largest clean energy project in our region, as well as significant long-term benefits for the state.”
The delegation’s letter came after Hydro-Quebec emerged as a nearly equal player with CMP in the fight against the referendum. A Maine political committee controlled by the Canadian utility and almost solely funded by a U.S. subsidiary has spent $6.2 million on the race through June, according to state filings. It is the most expensive referendum in Maine history.
In July, Hydro-Quebec signed a $329,000 contract with Forbes Tate, a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm that had to register under a U.S. law that makes companies working for foreign entities disclose relationships. The contract includes a poll disclosed on Wednesday aiming to test responses to positive and negative messages about the project.
Ackley said in response that if the corridor deal is defeated as a result of the referendum question, either taxes will go up or services will be capped in Quebec.
“Never before have we seen multi-million-dollar spending from an entity that is owned by a foreign government and it is totally interested in representing the interests of the citizens,” Ackley said.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee and a top CMP opponent, said he has no objection to government-owned utilities or investment funds doing well.
“But let’s be clear: they all seek to extract billions from us as their captive utility customers, from the CMP corridor, or both,” he said.
Ackley said he hasn’t yet heard back from the premier of Quebec. He said he hopes that the governor or the party caucuses will call for a special session to enact his bill.