Just five companies have spent $US96.3 (A$128) million over the past two years in a fight over a transmission line in northern Maine that will face a reckoning at the ballot box next week. A remote transmission line running through miles of sparsely populated woods may not seem like such a big deal, but the issue has ramifications far beyond Maine’s borders.
The fight has been so contentious that part-time Mainer Tucker Carlson weighed in. And it’s been so weird that, improbably enough, the dependably batshit climate denier actually sided with environmentalists opposing the project. Next week, it will get a vote.
The focus of all this money and strange bedfellows is a proposed 233-kilometre transmission line owned by local utility Central Maine Power (CMP). The line would run through the northern portion of Maine, connecting hydropower produced in Canada to the grid in Massachusetts in order to help state meet its clean energy goals. Construction on the $US1 (A$1.33) billion corridor actually began in February. But the power line is the focus of a November 2 ballot initiative that could possibly kill the project. (An additional attempt to put the line on last year’s ballot was deemed unconstitutional.)
As Utility Dive reported, the financial fight of the fate of the Maine woods is largely being fuelled by just five companies on various sides of the issue. Avangrid, the owner of CMP, and Hydro-Québec, which owns the hydropower at the other end of the line, are throwing money into campaigns to keep the project alive. The duo spent $US66.5 (A$88) million alone on PACs fighting against the ballot measure (a “yes” vote would kill the project). The project would be a huge win for these two entities: Hydro-Québec could earn $US490 (A$652) million a year alone from the line, which would supply about 8% of the electricity used in New England.
On the other side, NextEra Energy Resources, one of the nation’s largest utilities; Calpine, a natural gas company; and Vistra, a Texas-based energy company, have been spending big to defeat the line. Together, they’ve poured $US24 ($32) million into a separate PAC. A spokesperson for CMP’s lobbying arm told Earther in May that all three of these companies own oil, natural gas, and nuclear generating stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. The project could reduce energy and capacity prices in the region, Utility Dive reported, which would be an issue for their bottom line.
Nearly $US100 (A$133) million is a lot of money for Maine. The Bangor Daily News reported that the money added in the past three weeks alone — $US24 (A$32) million — makes the fight Maine’s most expensive ballot referendum campaign in history. As a point of comparison, oil companies spent $US31.5 ($42) million in total to kill a Washington state carbon tax referendum in 2018. Overall, the CMP fight is the second-most expensive political campaign in state history, trailing only last year’s nationally contentious fight for Senate between Sen. Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger.
All this money is being thrown at something that has caused real local tension in Maine. The line is proposed to run through 85 km of Maine’s North Woods, a 3.5-million-acre parcel of land that’s the biggest undeveloped forest in the eastern U.S. Environmental groups have raised concerns about how the project would impact endangered brook trout living in rivers along the proposed route. Locals have expressed worries about how construction would harm tourism in the North Woods, a vital industry in the region. Towns have alleged that they were not adequately consulted by CMP about the project, and that the project has actually stopped some local renewables projects in the area from moving forward. Some environmentalists also claim that the hydropower that would be sourced from Quebec is not as clean as it’s been made out to be. That the power line will send clean energy to Maine’s wealthier neighbour to the south rather than the state adds yet another layer of tension.
These are real, tough conversations about how local communities can be disrupted by big-ticket energy projects and the tradeoffs between conservation on a local scale and stopping catastrophic climate change on a larger scale. But as the campaign finance data shows, they are, effectively, being hijacked by corporate money on either side for their own interests. Carlson’s segment, which aired in May, illustrates how bad actors can use these issues to paint renewable energy as a whole in a negative light.
“This corridor is more than an energy project — it’s an attack against rural America and the people who live there,” Carlson said in his segment. That’s not quite what’s going on, but given the huge sum being spent on this one rural portion of America, it’s no wonder people are questioning motives.