Big Fight in the North Woods: CMP’s Proposed Powerline
by Jeff Reardon
If you haven’t heard about Central Maine Power’s proposed powerline, you must be living under a rock. The project is being debated with a blitz of roadside signs, TV and radio and internet ads, duelling Facebook pages, public forums, newspaper articles, letters to the editor, op-ed columns and telephone robocalls by paid operatives. (My wife and I fielded two such calls last weekend.) CMP (a subsidiary of Avangrid, itself owned a Spanish company, Iberdrola) and Hydro Quebec (owned by Quebec’s government) propose to build a new powerline that would cross the Maine border in Beattie Township, south of Jackman. From there it would run east for 53 miles across the headwaters of the Moose, Kennebec, and Dead Rivers, and cross under the Kennebec Gorge near Moxie Falls in Moxie Gore. Then the line would follow existing powerlines for 94 miles south to Lewiston. Other related upgrades would occur on a powerline that runs from Wiscasset to Windsor. Expect to hear a lot more about this over the next year.
What’s the fight about?
The permitting for this project may be the most contentious and complicated of any recent Maine project. Avangrid applied for three key Maine permits in 2017 and 2018: a Certificate of Public Need and Convenience from the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC); a zoning permit from the Maine Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC); and several approvals from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that address impacts to the environment, particularly fish and wild life. The PUC and LUPC permits were issued in 2019 and early 2020. A decision by the DEP is expected soon.
More than two dozen individuals and organizations applied to intervene in these permitting decisions and lumped together by the DEP and LUPC into ten “intervenor groups” to participate in hearings for a week in April, and a later single day in May. (Full disclosure: Trout Unlimited, for which I work, was one of the intervenors, and I provided testimony on brook trout impacts for Group Four.) There are thousands of pages of application materials, comments, and arguments. Hundreds of citizens testified at public hearings, with the vast majority opposing the project. Along the proposed route, eighteen towns have voiced their opposition, four have rescinded prior statements of support, and three have enacted a local moratorium. (See map.) This fall and winter, hundreds of volunteers collected signatures for a citizen referendum to kill the project on next November’s ballot.
Why all the hoopla?
This is not Maine’s first big powerline project. CMP completed its 440-mile Maine Power Reliability Project in 2015 and most Mainers didn’t notice or care. What’s different here? The key difference is those 53 miles of new powerline across northern Somerset County. CMP’s last project—and (as CMP ads tell you daily) two-thirds of this one—are co-located with existing powerlines. The impacts there are small additions to powerlines that were constructed a long time ago. If that’s all CMP proposed, or if this line followed an existing highway or other corridor, there probably wouldn’t be much public concern. But the 53 miles of new line cross one of Maine’s wildest corners.
I grew up on stories of wild country and fine trout fishing in “the Enchanted,” where two townships, three lakes and a stream are all named Enchanted and live up to the name. The new powerline cuts just north of Upper Enchanted township. As my friend and writer David Van Wie wrote in a recent book, this region has long been considered “Storied Water.” It was the setting for Arthur MacDougal’s published stories of Dud Dean, Maine Guide, and the home waters for Gene Letourneau, the long-time outdoor writer for the Kennebec Journal and Portland Press Herald. A lot of us read their stories and followed them into the Enchanted and nearby areas. One of my favorite trout ponds in the region has more than 100 canoes stashed on the shore, including some old wood-canvas ones that probably date to Letourneau and MacDougal’s youth.
CMP’s proposed powerline runs near or over the inlets and outlets of famous trout ponds that have been designated as “State Heritage Fish Waters,” including Rock Pond, Iron Pond, Grace Pond, Big and Little Wilson Hill Ponds and Tobey Pond. It crosses some of Maine’s best trout streams—streams that provide cold water and spawning habitat to support brook trout in the Moose, Dead and Kennebec Rivers. It goes over the shoulder of Coburn Mountain—the highest point in Maine you can reach on a groomed snowmobile trail. It crosses the Kennebec River in the Kennebec Gorge, the most popular whitewater river in the state, and Moxie Stream a mile upstream of Moxie Falls, said to be Maine’s highest waterfall. (In one of its few concessions to public opposition, CMP has agreed to tunnel under the Kennebec.) The powerline is shoe-horned into a narrow corridor along a logging road next to the state’s recently acquired Cold Stream Forest parcel–bisecting what was intended to be source-to-mouth protection of Cold Stream’s brook trout habitat and deer yards, and then south across two state-owned parcels to cross Tomhegan Stream, Cold Stream’s most important tributary. The powerline cuts through the deer wintering habitat near the confluence of Cold Stream and the Kennebec River—one of the last large, intact deer yards in Somerset County.
This is a landscape that has long been important to Maine people, both for its value as commercial forest land and for the fish, wildlife and recreation it supports. It’s also the biggest chunk of intact forest east of the Mississippi. Yes, we’ve been cutting timber there for a very long time, but trees grow back. Cleared powerlines get maintained with nothing bigger than shrubs. In the 53 miles of CMP’s new section of powerline, it only crosses one paved road, cutting through an area of more than a half-million acres along the Canadian border south of Jackman that does not contain a single public road. The powerline does not pass through a single organized town in that 53 miles.
During the hearings for the DEP and LUPC permits, experts testified to the importance of this region. They agreed that the area is special, and that the powerline is likely to change that. Dave Publicover, an ecologist and forester who testified for the Appalachian Mountain Club called it “the heart of a globally significant forest region that is notable for . . . lack of development and high level of ecological connectivity.” Ecologist Janet McMahon, testifying for one of the intervenor groups, wrote that the powerline would be “the largest fragmenting feature in the Western Maine Mountains region.” I cited a federal report that called the region the “last true stronghold for brook trout in the United States.” The Nature Conservancy, summarizing their own data on resilience to climate change and terrestrial and aquatic habitat connectivity, wrote that “Maine’s western forest is unique in the eastern US for its concentration of well-connected and climate-resilient wildlife habitat.” Ron Joseph, a retired biologist for Maine and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that the powerline would damage eleven deer yards. Mac Hunter, a professor at UMaine and past president of the Society for Conservation Biology, stated that “The proposed mitigation and compensation plan does not adequately address the cumulative impacts to. . . Maine’s wildlife.”
Why does anyone support the powerline?
With most of the towns on the route, local snowmobile clubs to nationally recognized ecologists and almost all of Maine’s major environmental groups opposed to the corridor, who supports it? CMP and Hydro Quebec, to start. CMP stands to make $60 million a year over the 20-year life of the project, and Hydro Quebec, which calls this project its largest sale ever, will sell power worth billions at a higher price than they can get in Canada. CMP spent more than $3 million on ads from October-December. Hydro Quebec is also spending on lobbyists and advertisements, triggering a $35,000 fine for nearly $100,000 in spending before it bothered to register with the Maine Ethics Commission.
Other supporters cite the benefits of “clean hydropower” and the carbon emissions it will offset. There are good reasons to see climate change as a threat to Maine’s native fish and wildlife—especially my beloved brook trout. And reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the primary way to do that. But the case that this project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not strong.
First, Hydro Quebec’s network of reservoirs emits methane—a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide–for years after they are flooded. One analysis calculates the greenhouse emissions of two of Hydro Quebec’s newer reservoirs as similar, per unit of energy, to a coal plant. Second, Hydro Quebec is already producing this power. If Maine doesn’t allow construction of this powerline, they can sell the power elsewhere. Nova Scotia, for example, gets almost two thirds of its electricity from coal. Sending Quebec’s hydropower there instead of Massachusetts would eliminate more carbon emissions than what CMP has proposed. Or Hydro Quebec’s power could flow to Massachusetts through Vermont on a powerline that already has permits in hand. Maine didn’t become the preferred route for this powerline until after the Northern Pass project was rejected in New Hampshire. Massachusetts will turn to Vermont if Maine says no.
What’s coming next?
The Maine PUC and LUPC have already approved the project. A draft decision from the Maine DEP is expected soon. If issued, the DEP permit may be appealed. Meanwhile, powerline opponents announced on February 3 that they had collected 75,000 signatures on a petition to get a citizen referendum question on the ballot next November. If at least 63,000 of those are certified by the Secretary of State, the question will be on the November ballot. Millions of dollars will be spent on ads between then and now. There is also at least one bill in front of the Legislature, LD 1893, which raises questions about whether CMP’s lease to cross state-owned lands in Johnson Mountain and West Forks townships were appropriate. LD 1893 had a hearing on January 15 before the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, and will be working its way through the legislative process over the winter.
Maine has a long history of contentious fights over power, public lands, and dams—many of them in the western Maine mountains. There are still people around who remember battles over CMP’s construction of the Flagstaff Dam in 1950. A lot more remember the proposal to develop Bigelow Mountain as a ski resort in the 1970’s, and Great Northern’s planned Big A dam on the West Branch Penobscot in the 1980’s. CMP’s proposed powerline looks like it may be the same kind of battle. Let’s hope Maine makes the right choice.