In 2016, Massachusetts passed a law requiring its electrical utilities to purchase more clean, renewable energy. Little did they know they would spark the most expensive legal and political contest in Maine’s history.

You’ve seen the signs on the road. On Nov. 2, we must decide whether we want the CMP Corridor to proceed, or not. The answer is not as easy as either side wants you to believe.

The Massachusetts law seemed like a nice idea from the perspective of combating climate change, but it didn’t require the state to produce that clean, renewable energy within its own borders. The Massachusetts utilities turned their eyes to Hydro-Quebec.

Great plan. The only problem was they had to find some way to get that energy from the great dammed-up rivers of Quebec down to jolly old Massachusetts. That meant getting permission to build a road across the backyard of one of their irascible neighbors to the north. After New Hampshire regulators rejected the Northern Pass Plan, Massachusetts looked to Central Maine Power, who were more than willing to cut up some Maine wilderness to make a profit as the middleman.

The CMP Corridor, as it has come to be known, is mostly existing infrastructure; but 53 miles of new power lines would need to be cleared and built between the Canadian border and Forks Plantation. This stretch is designated, on CMP planning documents, as Segment 1. Segment 1 cuts through a stretch of pristine Maine wilderness, described by the Natural Resources Council of Maine as the “largest contiguous temperate forest in North America, perhaps the world.” Construction of the corridor would fragment this contiguous block, disrupting wildlife and impacting the tourism industry.

Much of the land crossed by Segment 1 is owned by timber companies, but two key parcels are State-owned public lands. The LePage administration first leased these to CMP for the corridor, but the Mills administration has done the same, albeit for a higher price. Both administrations claim they had authority to do so, but the Maine Constitution requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to approve any changes to public lands that “substantially alter” the landscape. In August, a Kennebec County Superior Court judge found that the corridor does substantially alter these public lands. That case is now being appealed.

Meanwhile, the people of Maine have proposed to use their extant referendum powers to oppose the corridor. In 2020, a petition, to reverse the issuance of a permit granted by the Maine Public Utilities Commission to CMP, attempted to make the ballot. This attempt succeeded in gathering the necessary petition signatures, but was blocked by the Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that the people did not have the authority to overrule the Public Utilities Commission. Now a second petition has made its way to the 2021 ballot as Question One.

Question One does three things. If passed by a ‘yes’ vote, it would block any transmission lines from being built in the Upper Kennebec Region, the wilderness area traversed by Segment 1. It would also require the legislature to approve, by a two-thirds vote, any similar projects in the future, as well as any projects proposed since 2020. Furthermore, it would require the legislature to approve, again by a two-thirds vote, any similar projects on public lands going back to 2014.

Supporters of the corridor include climate change activists who say we need the clean energy brought by Hydro-Quebec to do Maine’s part in fighting climate change, and that that need outweighs the relatively narrow impact the new infrastructure will have on the wilderness. Others point to the economic development gains promised by CMP. The terms of the deal do promise high-paying jobs, reduced electricity rates for struggling Mainers, and potentially tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars in spending on electric vehicle infrastructure and local education, all of which are badly needed.

But can we trust CMP to deliver on these promises? Anyone who has had a customer service interaction with them will probably agree we can’t. Even if you do trust CMP to deliver, their proposed figures pale when compared with the billions in profit that they, and Hydro-Quebec, stand to gain from the project. Maine deserves a better investment for its key role in New England and Quebec’s energy future.

It’s important to remember that hydropower from Quebec is not the only viable option when it comes to renewable and clean energy. Damming up Quebec’s rivers is not the only way to fight climate change, and we should be careful of being led into that assumption. Hydro-Quebec gets a better price for exporting to Massachusetts than they do domestically. The project doesn’t create new renewable energy; it redirects existing renewable energy to a higher bidder. Maine’s wilderness pays the price, not once but twice. We are downstream of Quebec’s dammed up rivers. New England Clean Energy Connect seems like a carbon negative energy solution but is in fact outright greenwashing.

It’s nice to imagine — and to work and fight for — an interstate and international cooperative solution to climate change. But the one currently on offer in Maine is unacceptable.

Question One places us in a lesser-of-two evils bind. The universal is colliding with the particulate. The world needs better energy solutions but that does not mean that Maine should be bisected so that Massachusetts can meet its own self-imposed quotas.

Both Maine’s and Massachusetts’ climate change solutions can be powered and led locally, rather than by Quebec. We should not let the Upper Kennebec Region be hacked up and we should not fail to secure our own renewable energy solutions through local initiatives.
In my opinion, Mainers are poorly served by Question One, but vote yes anyway.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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