Poles for power lines stand on ground that has been clear-cut.
Along what was slated to be the southern stretch of the corridor, unlinked high transmission utility poles dwarf original power lines. (Photo by Eric MIller.)

In the history of elections in Maine, only one Senate race—the Democratic challenger to Senior Senator Susan Collins last year—has seen more campaign and advertising money spent on it than a ballot measure in November 2021. This measure, Question 1, concerned the construction of a “Clean Energy Corridor” that would transmit hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts, through Maine.

When I, a Maine resident myself, look back at what happened here, I think there is a much more interesting story to be told than that of an unpopular energy utility losing in the ballot box. It’s one that could play out over and over as the United States, and the rest of the world, attempts to decarbonize. And it’s a rural story.

The Move to Renewable Energy

In 2016, a Massachusetts law established a timeline for reducing the state’s carbon footprint. This law prioritized hydropower in the near term and delayed mandatory off-shore wind power until 2027 at the latest. Naturally, cost was the driving factor as the state began to seek new energy sources, and in the end the least expensive option was importing hydropower from Canada. Massachusetts approached New Hampshire, which turned them down, so Maine was up next on the list. Central Maine Power (CMP) won the bid to construct high-voltage transmission lines from Quebec to Massachusetts and promptly began acquiring permits and mobilizing capital to start the project.

Poles lay in piles on cleared ground.
The destiny of land that had been cleared and poles that had been transported was once certain. Now, these clearings and materials sit in limbo. (Photo by Eric Miller.)

If you are outside of Maine—which is likely given that the state makes up less than 0.5% of the total U.S. population—it may come as a surprise that the biggest issue at the voting booth in November concerned a power line already under construction. It might also surprise people “from away,” as Mainers refer to non-residents, that the project would only clear cut 53 miles of northern Maine forestland before widening an existing transmission corridor.

While this may seem like fairly innocuous energy infrastructure development, it did not feel that way in Maine. The results of the vote yielded a major setback for the CMP project and broader decarbonization efforts, but a temporary win for residents of the Upper Kennebec and Dead River Region who felt their concerns about these developments were not being heard.

Strange Bedfellows of the Opposition

Grassroots environmental advocates and the corporate energy industry aren’t conventional comrades. But in the time leading up to the November 2 vote on Question 1, these groups found themselves fighting for a common goal: reject the proposed energy corridor.

Yard signs read "no CMP corridor" and "vote yes, reject the CMP corridor."
Signs in opposition of the CMP corridor remained up even weeks after the vote. (Photo by Eric Miller.)

Rural residents wanted their backyard landscapes shielded from development by a largely disliked public utility, and energy corporations wanted to protect their market share in the energy sector. These corporations realized that aligning with grassroots campaigns would be an avenue for slightly more subtle astroturfing, and they capitalized on the opportunity.

Adding to the “against” faction, Indigenous communities in Quebec and Maine were also vocal in their opposition of this energy corridor, saying that they had not been consulted, or compensated, in this development planned on their ancestral lands.

So, Who Voted in Favor? 

Upon reflection, it’s almost comical how much of a losing battle this ballot measure was for not one, but two outside interests (Quebec Hydro and the state of Massachusetts) hoping to make headway in Maine. Even branding the project a “Clean Energy Corridor,” which could have appealed to people in climate-affected Maine, didn’t work in their favor.

The clearest benefit for Maine was the $250 million converter station under construction in Lewiston where the municipality hoped it would create jobs and tax revenue. However, the project yielded diffuse benefits at best for the majority of the state and Lewiston, located in Androscoggin County which has a population of just over 100,000, would have reaped the highest rewards. Mayor Mark Cayer of Lewiston expressed disappointment in the outcome of the vote.

In an age where states are making significant concessions to attract investments, such as the recent Amazon warehouse bid war or the Wisconsin-Foxconn deal, the rejection of this proposal is an outlier. CMP made concessions that could be seen as a good deal to some Maine voters, such as customer credits, broadband investment, Franklin County development funds, electric vehicle infrastructure funds, and education grant funding. These private concessions were worth tens of millions of dollars to the state.

But at the ballot box these benefits did not outweigh the costs of the project for people in Maine.

Where We Stand Now

While votes fell decisively against the energy corridor, it is not dead yet. (Although it might be accurate to say it’s on life support.) Maine’s Supreme Court will assess the constitutionality of blocking construction of the energy corridor with the law enacted in November, 2021 by hearing oral arguments this spring or summer.  

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, signer of the 2016 bill that started it all, summarized the problem when he told CommonWealth magazine that “truly electrifying big pieces of what is currently a fossil-fuel-based economy isn’t going to work if people aren’t willing to accept transmission capacity to make that happen.” Last December, Governor Baker announced a selection of two off-shore wind projects, so their decarbonization plan continues to move forward, just not via Maine.

What Comes Next

In the end, Question 1 may be a cautionary tale for communities headed into decarbonization projects, especially in light of the difficulties that have also surrounded President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Ambitious public plans are often at the mercy of NIMBY-ism (the acronym for “not in my backyard”) and regional economic interests, neither of which were addressed in this case.

Is this what is in store for the future of climate legislation? If Maine is a model for other rural communities across the country then the answer seems to be an unfortunate yes, provided lessons from the Pine Tree State are not heeded. Mainers are not anti-environment, quite the opposite. They voted against clean energy development because they did not feel they were engaged as equal partners in the project and subsequently, they pushed back.

Eric Miller lives in Maine and works in public health policy research. He holds an M.S. Resource Economics and Policy and an M.A. Global Policy for which his research focused on governance of transboundary resources.

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