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Power line corridor through Maine in jeopardy after rebuke by voters

Power line corridor through Maine in jeopardy after rebuke by voters
Maine voters have approved a resolution that may stop construction of a transmission line carrying hydropower from mega-dams in Canada to the New England region of the United States. Photo by Sam Steele/Natural Resources Council of Maine

Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Maine voters have passed a referendum intended to stop construction of Central Maine Power's $1 billion hydropower corridor, a proposed 53-mile transmission line through undeveloped forest in Maine's North Woods.

If completed, the New England Clean Energy Connect project, six years in the making, would help bring hydropower from Canadian mega dams to ratepayers in Massachusetts.

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But the project's future is now in doubt after a majority of Maine voters cast a "yes" vote Tuesday in favor of Question 1, which asked whether construction of transmission lines through the Upper Kennebec Region should be banned.

As a result of the referendum vote, with 59% of votes in support, all future "high-impact" transmission line projects will require a two-thirds vote of each state legislative chamber to approve.

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"Maine residents have voted decisively to terminate the CMP corridor, which means the time has come for CMP to respect the will of Maine people by stopping this project immediately," Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a statement Wednesday.

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"If CMP fails to halt construction activities right away, then the Department of Environmental Protection should move quickly to suspend the permit and require that CMP begin restoring areas of Western Maine that already have been damaged," Didisheim said.

"We also call on Massachusetts to honor this electoral outcome by selecting an alternative option for meeting its climate goals without imposing significant environmental harm on another New England state," Didisheim added.

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Central Maine Power's transmission project was developed in response to an RFP issued by Massachusetts for long-term, clean energy contracts. Proposals for both above-ground and buried power lines through New Hampshire and Vermont were considered but ultimately lost out to CMP's bid.

With Tuesday's vote, Massachusetts may be forced to reconsider alternative proposals, some of which CMP's opponents argue have a much smaller environmental footprint and greater regional benefits.

"They should pursue the one through Vermont, which has double the benefits and very limited environmental impacts," Didisheim told UPI last month.

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Though it's not clear how Massachusetts will respond to the setback, Orlando Delogu, an emeritus law professor at the University of Southern Maine Law School, thinks CMP will press on in spite of the disappointing results.

"The fact that when they got all the applications and approvals completed and quickly began construction, I think was evidence that this was an undertaking that they were not going to step away from," Delogu, who has penned op-eds in support of the NCEC project, told UPI.

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"And I think that commitment went right up the corporate hierarchy," Delogu said.

CMP is a subsidiary of Avingrid, an American energy company owned by Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola.

CMP has spent the last six years going through a long regulatory review process, earning approval from multiple state and federal agencies.

Then, an unusual alliance of environmental groups, oil and gas interests, fishing guides and local politicians worked to get Question 1 on the ballot and thwart the project.

Environmental groups like NRCM and the Sierra Club were celebrating Wednesday, but Delogu said he suspects the fight is not over.

He sees the referendum as legally vulnerable, and he suspects CRM -- which has invested millions in the project -- sees things similarly.

"It's badly worded, it covers a spectrum of issues, not just one issue, but you only get one yes or no vote," Delogu said.

"There are various aspects of the initiative that it will be challenged with a high degree of likelihood that will be thrown out. CMP will be in court within a day or two filing an appeal of the constitutionality of this initiative," Delogu said.

For the environmental advocates who actively opposed the CMP, casting doubt on the green bonafides of mega-dam-derived power, Tuesday's results were a big win.

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For others like Delogu, who see the corridor as a necessary solution to climate change, the referendum result is a reminder of the power of big oil and gas.

"The fossil fuel people don't want the power coming in from Canada," Delogu told UPI. "That's why they've been willing to fund efforts to kill linkages in numerous places.

"Their ability to keep killing these linkages has to got to end if we're going to deal responsibly with the problem with global warming

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