Cohen: Maine’s electricity referendum sparks deep division in America’s most politically quirky state

Cohen: Maine’s electricity referendum sparks deep division in America’s most politically quirky state

The campaign is aligning tree-huggers with oil-burners, Republicans with Democrats, and creating other odd alliances.

Author of the article:

Andrew Cohen

In this 2019 photo, power lines power lines converge on a Central Maine Power substation in Pownal, Maine. The company's controversial 145-mile, billion-dollar power line would bring hydro-electricity from Canada into the regional grid, to serve Massachusetts customers.
In this 2019 photo, power lines power lines converge on a Central Maine Power substation in Pownal, Maine. The company’s controversial 145-mile, billion-dollar power line would bring hydro-electricity from Canada into the regional grid, to serve Massachusetts customers. Photo by Robert F. Bukaty /The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — For weeks, the local airwaves have been full of commercials and commentary on a power corridor extending from Canada through Maine’s north woods. There are signs on roads, flyers in mailboxes and notices in newspapers, as if this were an election campaign.

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Given the claims on both sides, you’d think the project was environmental Armageddon or energy Nirvana. To critics and supporters it is, which is why Mainers will address the issue in a referendum on Nov. 2. The question: to build or not to build.

This referendum has become the most contentious and expensive in memory. It’s another example of the seriousness of public debate in Maine, which has the most quirky and unpredictable politics in the United States.

The electricity comes from Quebec, across Maine’s northern border. The Central Maine Power Corridor will run 145 miles from near Lac-Mégantic through thickly forested northern Maine to the New England energy grid in Lewiston, in central Maine. From there it will go on to Massachusetts.

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Hydro-Québec, a partner in the corridor, argues this is about clean energy. It says the power will reduce net carbon emissions by displacing fossil-fuel plants in the region. It also says clean energy will reduce the cost of electricity in Maine; it is offering $190 million U.S. in rate relief, a kind of commission to Maine for allowing those transmissions lines. It’s also offering subsidies for heat pumps, as well as broadband and electric vehicles, and for tourism promotion.

The state approved the corridor in 2018 and began construction. The clear-cutting is ugly and campaigns against it are emotional. “CMP’s Corridor would bulldoze a special place just to send power to Massachusetts,” reads one ad.

This is the refrain of the state’s environmental organizations and aboriginal groups such as the Penobscot Nation. They say the completed corridor — 53 miles of the 145 miles are new — will disfigure the land, discourage tourism and endanger wildlife.

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They say the savings to Mainers will be minimal, paid out over 40 years. Not all naysayers are environmentalists: opponents include NextEra, an energy company operating an oil-fired plant in Yarmouth, Maine, which will lose business to clean power.

Little about this issue is clear cut — especially the clear-cutting itself. While critics call Maine’s woods “pristine,” “untouched” and “a unique gem,” that’s not uniformly so.

The north woods, as Henry David Thoreau described them in his celebrated account of his long expeditions in the mid-19th century, are not pristine. Logging companies have been cutting greedily for generations. In fact, much of the power lines will run along existing corridors, albeit widened.

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True, there are glorious reserves of untouched forest, but the corridor will not go through them. There are logging roads. The woods of Maine are lovely, dark and deep, as Robert Frost rhapsodized in another context, but they are not the Garden of Eden.

Still, it is easy to see why Mainers oppose this. They will not see much savings in the cost of heating, which for the most part is generated by oil rather than electricity. Construction jobs will come and go.

Both sides are spending a lot of money. The rhetoric has become inflammatory. The referendum is aligning tree-huggers with oil-burners, Republicans with Democrats, and other strange bedfellows. This is the way in Maine, which prides itself on pragmatism, common sense and independence.

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Northern Mainers supported Donald Trump in 2020. In the more populous, urban south, they supported Joe Biden. It’s the only state that split its vote, electing a Democratic president while re-electing a Republican senator, Susan Collins. She won easily, defying conventional wisdom. Republican Paul LePage, the two-time governor, has announced he will challenge Janet Mills, the sitting Democratic governor, next year. LePage was divisive, crude and conservative in this moderate state, a devotee of Trump, with his own uncanny appeal.

On Nov. 2, the referendum on the power line could go either way, but no one should be surprised if Maine says no to Massachusetts and Hydro-Québec.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

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