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Maine's North Woods offers glimpse of future fights for 'green energy'

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Maine's North Woods offers glimpse of future fights for 'green energy'
Maine voters next month will vote on whether to allow construction of a transmission line to carry electricity generated by dams in Canada, part of which will cross the state's North Woods, which is where the pictured Gold Brook and its source, Rock Pond, are located. Photo by Sam Steele/Natural Resources Council of Maine

BANGOR, Maine, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- A proposed energy project in Maine's North Woods has made for strange bedfellows and turned old friends into enemies over whether shipping electricity from Canada to New England is good for the environment.

To deliver hydroelectric power from Canadian mega dams to ratepayers in Massachusetts, the New England Clean Energy Connect project would carve a 53-mile corridor through undeveloped forest in Maine's North Woods.

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Maine voters will decide on its fate Nov. 2.

"The project will impact 263 wetlands and cross 200 different rivers and streams, the best brook trout habitat remaining in North America," said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy at the Natural Resource Council of Maine, a group that opposes the corridor.

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"It is a high-environmental impact project that was designed to maximize profits for CMP," Central Maine Power Co., Didisheim told UPI.

To complete the CMP Corridor, an existing path carved for operating transmission lines would be widened from to 225 feet from 150 feet. In total, the corridor would stretch 145 miles.

The project, which proponents say would diminish the region's reliance on fossil fuels and bring jobs to Maine, has pitted retired foresters against registered fishing guides and forced environmental activists and oil and gas companies into awkward alliances.

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Mainers, who are being barraged by televised political ads for and against the project, are to decide the corridor's fate Nov. 2, when they cast a vote on referendum Question 1.

A "yes" vote on Question 1 would halt the construction of New England Clean Energy Connect and require a two-thirds vote of each state legislative chamber to approve future "high-impact" transmission line projects.

Previewing the future

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While the controversy surrounding the referendum comes to a head next month, the political drama may be a prelude to future fights.

In Maine, New England and elsewhere, the race to decarbonize the economy is becoming more urgent and new energy developments are sold as essential to fight climate change.

For the ecologists, forest managers, economists and environmental advocates who say they care deeply about the planet and the threat of climate change but find themselves on opposite sides of the debate over the CMP Corridor, the project's green energy benefits remain the primary point of contention.

The disagreement extends all the way to the source of the power promised to Massachusetts -- the dozens of mega dams owned and operated by HydroQuebec.

Though environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the NRC may occasionally support small-scale hydropower operations, provided they accommodate migratory fish, they strongly oppose mega dams.

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"These giant reservoirs are really incredibly impactful environmentally," Becky Bartovics, a volunteer leader with Sierra Club Maine, told UPI. "The scale of these is beyond comprehension."

The massive amount of water being held back in the forest will destroy its ability to sequester carbon, she said, adding "that's not green to do that."

Downsides of hydroelectricity

When forests are flooded, the decaying plant matter releases methane, which continues bubbling up for several years.

"The impacts of methane are becoming more and more of a concern, and that's important, as it is one of the most potent greenhouse gas," Matt Cannon, campaign and policy associate director at Sierra Club Maine, said.

Other problems exist with mega dams, Bartovics and Cannon say.

Decaying plants also release methyl-mercury in the water, a harmful neurotoxin that can accumulate in fish. What's more, mega dams and the massive reservoirs often displace thousands of people.

In Quebec, hundreds of Indigenous people, members of several First Nation tribes, have been displaced by HydroQuebec. Land they hunted and fished for millennia is now permanently flooded.

"In a location where people were once able to fish, they've been told by the power company that they're no longer able to fish there because it is too toxic," Bartovics said.

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A coalition of Quebec's First Nation tribes are suing HydroQuebec to prevent completion of the CMP Corridor, arguing that its construction will require HydroQuebec to increase production capacity at its reservoirs, further stressing ecosystems.

No new infrastructure

Lloyd Irland, a professional forester and former Maine state economist who has publicly backed the corridor, said he might feel differently if HydroQuebec were proposing to build additional mega dams.

But, he told UPI that the infrastructure already is built and the power is waiting to be brought to New England.

Irland points to studies suggesting that hydropower, especially hydropower in northern climates in which plant decomposition is minimized, produce considerably cleaner energy than oil and gas facilities.

Irland and supporters of the project say unused capacity at HydroQuebec's reservoirs will ensure it leads to long-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but opponents insist the project will create no new clean energy.

They add that once hydropower is redirected to Massachusetts, it would force HydroQuebec's other customers, including those in New York and Quebec, to replace lost supply with dirtier forms of power.

"This project is not about the climate. It's simply about moving energy around to capture the highest rate of return," Didisheim said. "There are not additional climate benefits from this project."

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HydroQubec, for its part, has mostly opted to highlight the reliability and affordability of its power.

"So, the question about whether this [NECEC] will make a difference in climate change. CMP has no doubt that it will -- [but] we can't guarantee it," CMP spokesman John Carroll told attendees of a meeting in 2019. "That's not our job, that's not our business."

Let regulations regulate

Opponents argue that fewer question marks around the project's impacts on regional power production would exist had an independent study of its emissions impacts garnered the required two-thirds support in Maine's state Legislature.

"CMP spent hundreds of thousands in 2019 to lobby against verifying their proposal's cleanliness independently," Maine state Rep. Seth Berry, an opponent of the CMP Corridor, told UPI in an email. "If that bipartisan bill had survived the veto, we might know how 'clean' their line actually is."

But Irland, dismayed by the polarization and politicization of the CMP Corridor, said there is no need for additional accounting, as several state agencies have weighed the corridor's pros and cons.

"We invented regulatory agencies to take these questions out of politics. That system basically works," Irland told UPI. "But when powerful groups object to the answers, politics and PR campaigns get involved."

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"For the Clean Energy Corridor, we now have opponents who ignore the results of five regulatory determinations that it is a sound project," he said. "They fill editorial pages and mailboxes with claims that have been rejected by multiple regulators as technically and scientifically unwarranted."

If professed climate advocates can't agree on what counts as "clean energy" and a solution to climate change, what chance do average voters have?

"It can be difficult for the public to evaluate the pros and cons of a specific energy project, because every project is unique, and they all have environmental, economic and social dimensions that need to be considered," Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance, told UPI in an email.

"The standard should not be zero negative impacts, because anything built in the real world will have some negative impact on someone. Instead, the standard should be whether the overall benefits outweigh the overall negative impacts," Leon said.

Regional solutions to global problem

While regulatory agencies may help depoliticize the assessment of energy projects, they're not typically required to look very far beyond their state's borders. That's a problem, said Berry, a businessman and former educator.

Maine's Public Utilities Commission "sidestepped the global climate impact, focusing instead on the regional," he said.

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HydroQuebec did not testify during the commission's review process.

"If redirecting electrons from Canada causes more coal or tar sands to be burned, regionally, that's Canada's problem, but globally, it's everyone's," Berry said.

That's why Berry would like to see governments and regulatory agencies change the way they track and tally emissions.

"We need to shift from production-based to consumption-based carbon accounting," he said. "Otherwise, the shell games are all too easy. For now, both Maine and most nations and states use the former."

That means most states and countries are only accounting for a portion of their carbon footprint.

It's not that the global nature of climate change precludes small-scale solutions -- Berry said he is an advocate for consumer-owned utilities. He wants to see more and more Mainers get their power from local solar and wind production.

But when assessing energy projects, it's vital to think globally, Berry argues, to ensure states and municipalities aren't simply exporting their carbon footprint.

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