Central Maine Power Co.’s political action committee spent nearly $2.2 million during the final three months of 2019, mostly for advertising in support of a transmission corridor to carry power from Quebec to Massachusetts.

The committee spent money on television and social media ads, political consultants, polling and opposition research, according to a campaign finance report filed Wednesday with the Maine Ethics Commission.

The head of the committee said the spending shows the utility’s commitment to a “fact-based discussion” of the corridor project, while a leading opposition group called the amount spent “astounding” and said it was aimed at derailing an effort to force a referendum vote on the controversial corridor project.

“This feverish spending should raise serious questions because it comes at a time when CMP is seeking a rate increase that would cost Mainers nearly $47 million,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The council says it opposes the corridor because it would cut through the Maine woods and possibly stifle development of renewable energy in Maine with little tangible benefit to the state. The hydroelectric power from Quebec is destined for customers in Massachusetts.

CMP plans “a lengthy discussion” of the proposal, said Jon Breed, the political consultant who set up the political action committee, called Clean Energy Matters. He said Maine will benefit from jobs generated by the project and also from ancillary benefits such as the ability to expand broadband coverage to western Maine.

CMP was the top contributor to the PAC, putting $2.4 million into the organization during the fourth quarter. Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, contributed a small amount to the group. The funds contributed by CMP came out of shareholders’ earnings and did not factor into customers’ rates, a company spokeswoman said.

Most of the spending, nearly $1.8 million, went to advertising. The PAC is running ads on television and online, touting the benefits of clean energy and maintaining that the project would affect only a tiny percentage of the woods it would pass through.

The next largest expenditure, $183,300, was for polling and survey research. One line item in the campaign finance report shows a $46,800 expenditure paid to VR Research Inc. of Oakland, California, a company whose website says it specializes in “public records research” and “opposition research.”

“VR Research provides public records research, retrieval and analysis for political, corporate, public affairs and government relations campaigns,” the website says.

The campaign finance report covered the period from Oct. 1 to the end of the year.

The state Land Use Planning Commission voted last week to certify CMP’s $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project as an accepted use in the areas it would be built. The commissioners focused on protected recreation areas around the Kennebec Gorge and the Appalachian Trail, and CMP’s proposals to buffer the impact of its power line on them.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously in April 2019 to grant a key certificate for the corridor after determining that the economic and grid reliability benefits of CMP’s proposed transmission line outweigh harder-to-gauge impacts on scenery and outdoor recreation in the western Maine mountains.

The power line still awaits a decision from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is reviewing CMP’s permit application and expects to submit a draft decision within the next month. The company also needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has said it expects to issue a decision in the next few months.

Most of the proposed transmission line would only require expanding existing power line corridors, but roughly one-third would involve new construction in woodlands between the Canadian border and the Kennebec River.

Debate over the corridor is expected to continue despite approvals from regulators. Opponents are seeking to put the project on the ballot through a referendum. One opposition group, No CMP corridor, reported Wednesday that it raised $18,784 during the final three months of 2019 and spent $19,125. Its biggest expenditures were for referendum signature gathering.

Breed, the political consultant, said the PAC he leads is looking into the links between No CMP Corridor and Say No to NECEC, another opposition group. “NECEC” is a reference to the formal name for the proposed corridor.

Breed said there are questions about the legality of financial and organizational ties between the two groups.

Earlier this week, a group of former environmental leaders and government officials in Maine released a statement declaring their support for the corridor, largely because it would bring a new renewable energy source to the region that would help reduce carbon emissions.

But opponents of the project, including some of the organizations the former officials used to lead, said their position ignored local damage to the environment the corridor might cause.

The spending by CMP to promote the project also comes as controversies continue to swirl around the company. Over the past year, the PUC’s staff conducted an investigation into CMP’s billing and customer service practices after receiving complaints about a big jump in the amount of bills for many customers after a new billing system was activated in late 2017.

A recent report by the PUC staff agreed with CMP’s own analysis, which found that the significant bill increases reported by customers during the winter of 2017-18 resulted from higher usage during a record-breaking cold snap, and a double-digit increase in the standard-offer energy supply price in January 2018.

However, the report concluded CMP mismanaged the rollout of its new billing system, known as “SmartCare,” which contained bugs that resulted in tens of thousands of customers not receiving bills for months, receiving multiple bills in one month, or receiving bills that were inaccurate. It urged a reduction in CMP earnings as a penalty until ongoing issues are resolved.

But in a separate report, the PUC staff also called for approving an 8.1 percent increase in CMP’s energy distribution rates, in part to pay for improvements to the utility’s much maligned customer service.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.