On the same day in late September, I found two competing door hangers on my front-door knob — one urging me to vote “yes” and a second to vote “no” on Question 1, the Initiative measure on November’s ballot that is designed to block New England Clean Energy Connect Corridor’s (NECEC’s) planned electric transmission line.

The messages contained in both were filled with slogans intended to obscure the real issues.  About all they achieved was to harden my belief that Maine’s initiative process is an invitation to folly.

The NECEC project involves the construction of a 145-mile-long, high-voltage Hydro-Quebec transmission line from the Canadian border to Lewiston, which will carry up to 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Quebec Province to the Northeastern United States.

About 95% of the power will go to Massachusetts, with less than 5% being sold in Maine. However, as a sweetener Hydro-Quebec is providing $258 million to Maine ratepayers and residents (for such things as the purchase of high-efficiency heat pumps, installation of electric vehicle charging stations, and buildout of broadband infrastructure), and there will be ancillary benefits to Maine residents and businesses in the form of local employment and lower power costs.

Perhaps most importantly, the project is projected to reduce regional carbon emissions by 3 to 3.6 million metric tons annually, equivalent to removing 700,000 cars from the road each year.

The downside is that the line will run through some of northern Maine’s most scenic wooded and mountainous areas and will require timber to be cleared for part of its route.  The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which approved the project on March 29, 2019, found that it would have “adverse and significant” effects on scenic, historic and recreational values, and associated impacts on tourism and local economies in close proximity to the project, but was unable to quantify these effects.

The door hangers conveyed almost none of this information, just a litany of ominous warnings!

The vote “yes” folks — and here’s where Question 1 gets confusing — really want the voters to say “no” to the transmission corridor.

Their door hanger claims the corridor would run “145 miles through Maine’s North Woods and would permanently scar the largest unfragmented forest east of the Mississippi.” It also points out that a Maine Superior Court judge has ruled the line would illegally cross public land and that less than 5% of the power would be used in Maine.

These assertions are partly true, partly false and largely irrelevant.

Only a portion of the 145-mile corridor would run through “unfragmented” woods. The corridor is going to be 150 feet wide. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I reckoned that it would cover 2,636 acres.  Even if that acreage were entirely wooded, it would be dwarfed by Maine’s 18 million acres of forest, but, in fact, it’s not all covered by trees. Quebec-Hydro estimates that the area to be cut has a footprint of only 1,000 acres.

A Maine Superior Court judge didn’t rule the entire project was illegal but did hold, in a decision last August, that the State Bureau of Parks and Lands couldn’t lease an approximately 1-mile stretch of public land needed for the project without securing prior legislative approval. This was based on a technicality:  in permitting the project, the Bureau had failed to make a required finding that the leased use would not reduce or substantially alter the land’s conservation or recreational uses.

The initiative seeks to make that approval unattainable by taking it out of the Bureau’s hands and requiring a two-thirds legislative vote, a supermajority generally reserved only for extraordinary legislative measures such as overriding gubernatorial vetoes, expelling legislators and proposing constitutional amendments.

Finally, it shouldn’t matter, in the bigger picture, that Massachusetts is getting the lion’s share of the power. If Hydro-Quebec’s transmission line reduces New England regional carbon emissions by over 3 million metric tons, that benefits everyone. Global warming from carbon emissions is — well — global. What benefits Massachusetts in this regard benefits Maine and the rest of the country.

The vote “no” faction’s door hanger — which really calls for a “yes” vote on the transmission line — perseverates on something that is also beside the point. It bemoans the portion of the Initiative question which would “require the Legislature to approve all other such projects anywhere in Maine, both retroactively to 2020, and to require the Legislature, retroactively to 2014, to approve by a two-thirds vote such projects using public land.”

Question 1, it warns gravely, “will give politicians the power to make new laws that apply to events in the past and could hurt small businesses, renewable energy, and manufacturing. Retroactive laws are unfair and dangerous.”

Only lawyers, judges and constitutional scholars spend time fretting about retroactive laws.  True they can prove unfair in many cases, but the NECEC Corridor is probably the only project that will be affected by the retroactive aspect of this Initiative.

The real issue, going forward, is that any “high-impact” transmission lines (namely those at least 50 miles in length and outside an established corridor) will always have to receive Legislative approval, and then by a two-thirds majority if they cross even one foot of public land.  The development of new solar and wind power generation sources in Maine may necessitate construction of highly efficient and reliable transmission lines. A “yes” vote on the Initiative will make that immeasurably harder to attain.

Before giving its blessing to this project, the PUC went through an exhaustive impartial investigation, receiving testimony, expert reports and public comments, and issuing a detailed 161-page report containing its findings. Much of the information it contains is technical and can’t be compressed into a newspaper column, let alone a door hanger. But the report represents an honest, fair and thorough effort to balance competing interests and determine the “public interest.”

Question 1, on the other hand, has been put on the ballot by a small minority of the voters (about 70,000 as opposed to over 630,000 voters for governor in 2018), is heavily financed by interest groups (to the tune of about $60 million to date), and is expressed in convoluted, confusing language. The campaign for and against the Question 1, like many initiative measures, has turned into a media blitzkrieg of misleading and emotionally charged appeals to voter fear and anger.

About the only certainty in the Initiative process is that the outcome of Question 1 will be based on emotion, not reason.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 15 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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