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Hydropower corridor opponents launch new referendum drive

October 30, 2020 GMT

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A new referendum drive aimed at stopping a 145-mile (233-kilometer) hydropower transmission corridor in western Maine is underway.

The Maine secretary of state on Friday provided the paperwork necessary for signature collection to begin, and referendum supporters plan to be at polling places with petitions on Election Day.

“With a decision this important, Mainers deserve to be heard, but so far during the permitting process, their overwhelming opposition to this project has fallen on deaf ears,” said Tom Saviello, a former state lawmaker who opposes the project.

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It would be the second referendum targeting Central Maine Power’s $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect, which aims to serve as a conduit for up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to reach New England.

The project would be fully funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, but the entire region would benefit through reduced greenhouse emissions and stabilization of energy prices, supporters say.

Critics say the benefits are overstated and that the project would spoil part of Maine’s North Woods.

Opponents previously collected more than 63,000 signatures for a “People’s Veto” referendum, but it’s not on the Nov. 3 ballot because it was determined to be unconstitutional. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the “People’s Veto” referendum can be used to nullify legislative actions, but not regulatory decisions by state agencies.

This time, the referendum calls for legislative approval of transmission lines longer than 50 miles (80. kilometers) , and a ban on high-impact transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region. Both provisions, aimed squarely at the project, would be retroactive to Sept. 16, 2020.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Land Use Planning Commission and Maine Public Utilities Commission have already approved the transmission line.

The Army Corps of Engineers finished its environmental assessment but has yet to issue the final permit for the project.

The project calls for construction of a high-voltage power line from Mount Beattie Township on the Canadian border to the regional power grid in Lewiston, Maine. It would mostly follow existing utility corridors, but a new path would have to be cut through 53 miles (85 kilometers) of wilderness.

Sandi Howard, leader of the No CMP Corridor PAC, said volunteers will be at 100 polling places on Election Day. “Our grassroots volunteers are more energized than ever,” she said in a statement.

The referendum’s wording could harm renewable energy development and threaten the state’s ability to meet carbon reduction goals, said Jon Breed, executive director of Clean Energy Matters, who contends that opponents of the project are being bankrolled by fossil fuel corporations.

“This new referendum is so broadly written that it could jeopardize other major renewable energy projects in Maine, including solar, wind and offshore wind projects,” Breed said.