The CMP spent millions but couldn’t avoid a massive calculation by voters in Maine

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Central Maine Power Co. and its allies have spent tens of millions in two years to save its massive hydroelectric corridor. It seems that no amount could have turned the tide on an anti-corridor campaign that relied on the deep unpopularity of the public service.

Mainers handily rejected the corridor in Tuesday’s election, with 59 percent of voters supporting a question that seeks to kill the project that would bring Canadian hydropower to the regional grid. The CMP’s parent filed a complaint the next day, calling the new law unconstitutional and continued construction, prompting opponents to ask the state to stop work.

The corridor is not dead, but CMP is now fighting its clients in court while trying to save a project that is crucial for the future of the company and the region. As the corridor took shape, CMP faced customer service scandals stemming from an erroneous response to a 2017 windstorm that led to a record regulatory penalty in early 2020.

This PR problem was an insurmountable challenge. It was an unpopular utility trying to sell an unpopular project. Popular fervor belied that opposition to the corridor was backed by fossil fuel interests trying to maintain their share of the regional electricity market. Nonetheless, it was clear that the biggest problems with the CMP were on Mainers’ mind.

“I don’t like what I learned about the CMP,” said Doreen McCabe of Hampden, who voted against the corridor on Tuesday. “They are not honest and they have a bad reputation.”

With more than $ 91 million spent on the campaign by both sides, strategists said both sides of the referendum were well organized. The CMP and its affiliates spent $ 62 million of that amount, with ample time to test the arguments after an anti-corridor issue was taken off the ballot in 2020. Corridor supporters tried to focus more on the technical parts of the new law at the end of the campaign, often trying to get the attention of the project itself. There were few opportunities for them to work with voters.

The CMP had a paltry 37% statewide approval rate, according to a pre-election poll from Digital Research Inc. It got worse from there. Only 20% said it would be good for jobs in Maine and 9% said it would help CMP clients. More than 52% said the corridor would harm the environment, although 60% want to prioritize renewables.

“If there was a reshuffle where the ‘no’ could change strategy, the outcome wouldn’t be much different,” said Dave Wilby, a public affairs strategist specializing in energy and infrastructure projects. “Some people may think the ‘no’ messages were ineffective, but if there had been better ones they would have used them.”

It was clear the hallway was heading for a fight in early 2019, when several towns along the way resisted the project in public votes after Gov. Janet Mills backed the project after signing a benefit package. with the CMP and its allies. While the strongest opposition was in western Maine in Tuesday’s election, geography wasn’t much of a factor. The “yes” side has won all counties except Aroostook, where leaders hope to fully connect to the regional network soon.

This included places that would have been positively affected by the corridor, notably Lewiston and Auburn. Both cities have invested significant political capital in supporting the project, citing millions of dollars in tax revenue from improvements around where the corridor would connect to the grid. In the end, Lewiston voted 56% against the project. Auburn was 57 percent opposition.

Opponents of the corridor described the corridor as benefiting only Massachusetts, which pays for the project although the electricity is used regionally. They also made the character of the state forests a focal point, characterizing the commercial forest where the new segment 53 of the corridor would function as ‘virgin’, although the area requiring further logging has long been a focal point. commercial logging. and has hundreds of kilometers of roads.

“It’s bad for the environment and our communities and I don’t think the payoff is worth destroying Maine’s natural resources,” said Nicole Araujo, an event marketer from Portland who voted “yes” .

But CMP made the corridor project most vulnerable by failing to recognize people’s frustrations with the company, said Gordon Weil, Maine’s first public defender and a vocal critic of the public service. He said acknowledging people’s frustrations with them would have meant admitting that the business had to change.

“Here, there was a situation where the CMP would come in and ask them something, and they had the opportunity, without going through [regulators], without going through the Legislative Assembly, tell the CMP directly that they were not satisfied with them. “

Some “yes” voters were more torn. Deirdre Fulton, from Norway, said climate change was a major issue for her and her children, but she wants the CMP to “come up with a softer deal”. A ‘no’ voter, Doug Hufnagel of Belfast, called the corridor a ‘little scratch on Maine’s face’ and said the anti-corridor side had dramatized the environmental effects.

“If we want electricity, we’re going to have to give something up,” said David Jones, a Presque Isle doctor who voted for the corridor.

There were lingering feelings among the Hall’s supporters that they pushed back further. One strategist said the CMP side should have addressed the emotional arguments long before the referendums kicked in. Hydro-Quebec CEO Sophie Brochu told Bloomberg News his company, despite spending nearly $ 22 million during the campaign, was “too nice.” A spokesperson for Hydro-Quebec declined to elaborate further on Brochu’s comments.

The CMP had few policy options available, said Tony Buxton, a lobbyist who represents pro-corridor group Industrial Energy Consumers. But he said after fighting CMP many times in his career on behalf of manufacturers, this time they were right about energy policy.

The real story, he said, was how rivals of CMP, including NextEra Energy, which funded the anti-corridor campaign to the tune of $ 20 million and operates a New Hampshire nuclear power plant and a oil fired power station in Yarmouth, will fight clean energy. development throughout the region.

“A lot of people in Maine today have shorter noses than they did before election day,” Buxton said, “because we cut our noses to upset our faces.”

BDN editors Michael Shepherd, Lia Russell, David DiMinno and Nick Schroeder contributed to this report.


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