Central Maine Power Co. and its allies spent tens of millions in a two-year slog to save its massive hydropower corridor. It looks like no sum could have turned the tide on an anti-corridor campaign that relied on the utility’s deep unpopularity.
Mainers handily rejected the corridor in Tuesday’s election, with 59 percent of voters backing a question that aims to kill the project that would bring Canadian hydropower to the regional grid. CMP’s parent filed a lawsuit the next day calling the new law unconstitutional and has continued construction, prompting opponents to ask the state to stop work.
The corridor is not dead, but CMP is now fighting its customers in court while trying to salvage a project crucial to the company’s and the region’s future. At the same time as the corridor took shape, CMP was facing customer service scandals emanating from a flawed response to a 2017 windstorm that led to a record regulatory penalty in early 2020.
That public relations problem was an insurmountable challenge. It amounted to an unpopular utility trying to sell an unpopular project. The grassroots fervor belied the fact that the corridor opposition was underwritten by fossil-fuel interests trying to preserve their share of the regional power market. Nonetheless, it was clear CMP’s bigger issues were on Mainers’ minds.
“I don’t like what I’ve learned about CMP,” said Doreen McCabe of Hampden, who voted against the corridor on Tuesday. “They’re not honest and they’ve got a bad reputation.”
With more $91 million spent on the campaign by both sides, strategists said both sides of the referendum were well-run. CMP and affiliates spent $62 million of that with ample time to test arguments after an anti-corridor question was struck from the ballot in 2020. Corridor backers tried to focus more on technical parts of the new law late in the campaign, often trying to draw attention from the project itself. There were few avenues for them to work with voters.
CMP had a paltry statewide approval rating of 37 percent, according to a pre-election poll from Digital Research Inc. It got worse from there. Only 20 percent said it would be good for Maine jobs and 9 percent said it would help CMP customers. More than 52 percent said the corridor would hurt the environment, even though 60 percent want to prioritize renewables.
“If there was a do-over where the ‘no’ side could change strategy, the outcome wouldn’t be much different,” said Dave Wilby, a public affairs strategist who specializes in energy and infrastructure projects. “Some people may think the ‘no’ messages were ineffective, but if better ones existed, they would have used them.”
It was clear that the corridor was headed for a fight in early 2019, when several towns along the path resisted the project in public votes after Gov. Janet Mills got behind the project after inking a benefits package with CMP and its allies. While the strongest opposition was in western Maine in Tuesday’s election, geography was not much of a factor. The “yes” side won every county except for Aroostook, where leaders are hoping to fully connect to the regional grid soon.
That included places that would have been positively affected by the corridor, including Lewiston and Auburn. Both cities sunk heavy political capital into backing the project, citing millions of dollars in tax revenue from upgrades around where the corridor would link to the grid. In the end, Lewiston went 56 percent against the project. Auburn was at 57 percent opposition.
Corridor opponents portrayed the corridor as only benefiting Massachusetts, which is paying for the project although the power will be used regionally. They also made the character of the state’s forests a focal point, characterizing the commercial forest where the new 53-segment of the corridor would run as “pristine,” even though the area requiring new cutting of trees has long been a center of commercial logging and has hundreds of miles of roads.
“It’s harmful to the environment and our communities and I don’t think the benefit is worth destroying natural resources in Maine,” said Nicole Araujo, an event marketer from Portland who voted “yes.”
But CMP made the corridor project most vulnerable by not recognizing people’s frustrations with the company, said Gordon Weil, Maine’s first public advocate and a vocal critic of the utility. He said that acknowledging people’s frustrations with them would have meant admitting the company needs to change.
“Here was a situation where CMP was coming in and asking them for something, and they had the opportunity to, without going through [regulators], without going through the Legislature, directly tell CMP they weren’t happy with them.”
Some “yes” voters were more torn. Deirdre Fulton of Norway said climate change was a huge issue for her and her children, but she wishes CMP “proposed a sweeter deal.” A “no” voter, Doug Hufnagel of Belfast, called the corridor a “tiny scratch on the face of Maine” and said the anti-corridor side dramatized the environmental effects.
“If we want electric power, then we are going to have to give something up,” said David Jones, a physician from Presque Isle who voted for the corridor.
There were lingering feelings among corridor supporters that they have pushed back further. One strategist said the CMP side should have addressed emotional arguments well before referendums came into play. Hydro-Quebec CEO Sophie Brochu told Bloomberg News her company, despite spending nearly $22 million during the campaign, was “too nice.” A Hydro-Quebec spokesperson declined to elaborate further on Brochu’s comments.
CMP had few political options available, said Tony Buxton, a lobbyist who represents the pro-corridor Industrial Energy Consumers Group. But he said after often fighting CMP during his career on behalf of manufacturers, they were correct on energy policy this time.
The real story, he said, was how CMP rivals, including NextEra Energy, which funded the anti-corridor campaign to the tune of $20 million and runs a New Hampshire nuclear station and an oil-fired plant in Yarmouth, will fight clean-energy development across the region.
“Lots of people in Maine today have shorter noses than they did before Election Day,” Buxton said, “because we’ve cut off our nose to spite our face.”
BDN writers Michael Shepherd, Lia Russell, David DiMinno and Nick Schroeder contributed to this report.