Arguments over Central Maine Power Co.’s $1 billion hydropower corridor project dominated the airwaves during the last year and a half, but Question 1 would not be on Tuesday’s ballot without three years of high-stakes political twists and turns.
The question, which aims to kill the project, is the most significant political question on Maine ballots this year. A yes vote will put up a major roadblock for the project, while a no vote will keep the regulations around the corridor as is. The sides have spent tens of millions of dollars, making it the most expensive referendum question in Maine’s history.
The corridor has sparked heated debates around Maine’s regulatory process, the region’s renewable energy future and the role of foreign governments in campaign spending, questions that have launched potential referendum campaigns of their own. CMP has mostly won on the regulatory front, but its years of customer service scandals are plaguing it in the public eye.
Tuesday’s vote may not mark the end of the project, but it could throw its future into question. We took a look back nearly four years to remember how Maine got here.
A project gets denied, and Maine is next in line
The project stems from a 2016 Massachusetts law requiring Massachusetts to increase its reliance on renewable energy over the next 10 years. Canadian hydropower was a major part of that plan, and CMP’s bid was not the first choice. That went to New Hampshire’s Northern Pass proposal from Eversource, which had already been the subject of intense public opposition for years before it was selected in 2018.
The project hit a stumbling block later that year when a state’s committee rejected it, a decision later upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. But the $1 billion Maine project was in place as Massachusetts’ main contingency by early 2018, when then-Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, stated a desire to push the project through. Signs of opposition were already present then, with some environmental groups questioning the project’s benefits.
CMP navigated the public process, but customer satisfaction struggles kept ill feelings alive
The project did not really move forward in Maine until CMP won over the new governor, Janet Mills, a Democrat who signaled skepticism of the project during her 2018 run for office to succeed LePage. But it soon became clear that she would be a CMP ally when negotiations around a benefits package leaked out during her first months in office.
The deal included more money for low-income customers, rate relief, broadband support and funding for heat pumps and electric vehicles. Mills’ administration later revised a 25-year public lands lease near the center of the corridor’s route to be more favorable to the state.
CMP collected permit after permit for the project in relatively smooth fashion at the state and federal level, despite legal challenges from opponents. But it was dogged by public-relations nightmares, including billing issues, improper winter disconnection notices and extended power outages eroding customers’ trust in the company. The company has been at the bottom of J.D. Power’s national survey of customer satisfaction with utilities for three years running.
That would prove to be the building block for opposition to the corridor, both for the current referendum and another effort to buy out Maine’s big utilities that could be voted on next fall.
Major money enters as opponents launch first referendum
In summer 2019, rumblings of a referendum against the project were beginning to emerge as communities along the corridor’s path signaled resistance. Money was already being spent to oppose the project generally, although it paled in comparison to what would come next. While CMP and affiliates are dominating spending, they are being opposed by tens of millions from fossil-fuel interests that would lose regional power market share if the corridor is built.
By the fall, efforts to collect signatures were in full swing, and questions about proponents’ efforts to do so were heard at Maine’s campaign ethics watchdog committee. Nearly 70,000 people signed petitions putting a question on whether the Maine Public Utilities Commission erred in determining the corridor was in the public benefit.
That set the stage for the massive spending that was to come. Ultimately, the first CMP-related question became the most expensive referendum fight in Maine’s history even though Maine’s high court ended up striking the question from the 2020 ballot, saying it unconstitutionally usurped power that the Legislature gave to regulators.
Even after it was killed, spending around the corridor did not stop. CMP and the provincial owned Hydro-Quebec, which would supply the power, have outspent corridor opponents heavily, sparking debate in Maine about whether companies with foreign government ownership should be allowed to spend on referendums. Maine voters could also make a decision on that next year after Mills vetoed a bill to rein in that spending this summer.
A new question emerges alongside final corridor approvals
Corridor opponents had a new challenge to CMP lined up just a month after their initial question was defeated late last summer. Unlike the previous effort, this question has faced few legal challenges, although those are likely to come if Mainers approve the referendum on Tuesday.
As signatures were being gathered, approvals for the project kept coming. Earlier this year, CMP was granted a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of Energy, greenlighting the corridor to cross the U.S.-Canada border and construct the project. Despite attempts to halt construction, opponents were on their back foot as the path seemed certain.
A key permit in question as future legal battles loom
But months into construction, a Maine judge ruled the LePage and Mills administration had no authority to lease public land in the West Forks region to CMP without first determining if the lands would be altered. It immediately put the project’s future into question, triggering a state review of the project as Murphy’s decision was immediately appealed to higher courts. A hearing on one state approval was held just two weeks ago.
Aside from Question 1, the ruling might be the biggest hurdle in CMP’s path. The company will be challenged to find a new route if the lease is voided and the project could be delayed for months. The Legislature would be unlikely to approve a lease given the results of a symbolic vote in July. Legal challenges could also come after Tuesday’s vote regardless of the outcome, making it just the latest twist in the fight over the project’s future.