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By Andrew Rice, Staff Writer
LEWISTON — A campaign supporting the controversial proposal for a new hydropower transmission line through Maine was rolled out here Tuesday, a day before state regulators are scheduled to host their final public hearing on the project, which has drawn opposition from hundreds of residents.
The project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect, would bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts via Maine by building a 145-mile transmission line through western Maine, with a major converter station in Lewiston.
Groups for and against the NECEC project have been using rallies, reports and endorsements in their bids to persuade the three members of the Public Utilities Commission, who are scheduled to vote in late December on whether to issue a key permit for the project.
A number of Lewiston officials, who have come out in favor of the project, stood among business and labor representatives at a news conference Tuesday morning on Lincoln Street, where the “Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs” campaign kicked off.
Ben Dudley, director of Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, said the project would make Maine “a leader in the race against the catastrophic effects of climate change,” by reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 265,000 metric tons annually.
“Is Maine going to take this opportunity to be a leader in addressing global climate change?” he said.
Others supporters at the event, including representatives from the Associated General Contractors of Maine, E.S. Boulos and Cianbro, argued it will produce 3,500 new jobs during peak construction.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the thousands of well-paying jobs would be in western Maine,” a section of our state that badly needs them.”
Tim Burgess of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said the project would secure local jobs for Maine electrical workers who have been forced to find work out of state.
The campaign, a coalition representing workers and businesses involved in the project, is meant to blunt growing opposition to the plan, especially as public opposition has outweighed support so far.
At a first round of hearings in September in The Forks and Farmington, grass-roots organizers who live near the proposed route and statewide environmental activists orchestrated a show of force. The overriding theme was that the project’s impact on the environment, natural resources and tourism outweighed promises of temporary job creation and economic benefits.
At the PUC, the vast majority of the 411 comments so far are from people or groups against the project. One group that has filed multiple comments, Say No to 145-mile Transmission Line Through Maine, claims to have more than 4,000 members.
Area politicians and representatives of small towns along the route also are weighing in. The Forks, West Forks and Moose River have voted to oppose the project, and a handful of others are intervening in the PUC case.
On Sunday, state Rep. Bradlee Thomas Farrin, R-Norridgewock, sent a letter to the PUC announcing his opposition.
On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Council of Maine joined in.
Sue Ely, climate and clean energy policy advocate for the NRCM, said Tuesday the Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs campaign is a direct response to the “enormous groundswell of town opposition that’s been slowly building over the past year.”
She said the NRCM does not believe the job creation promised by CMP will occur, and the project will likely harm existing jobs in renewable energy and jobs in western Maine’s recreation and tourism industries that rely on the region’s “rural and scenic quality.”
Part of the new transmission line is proposed to traverse the Kennebec River Gorge, considered an essential spot for outdoor recreation and summer tourism in the region.
NRCM officials said they are readying a new study for release Wednesday morning, prior to the hearing.
Regarding statements by proponents that the project would help counteract climate change, Judy Berk, communications director for the NRCM, said opponents of the power line have found that “the project does nothing to reduce climate emissions.”
“There will be just as much climate pollution created with or without this power line,” she said. “Hydro-Québec would merely be redirecting its existing electricity supply to Massachusetts, instead of selling that power to other customers.”
During the news conference, Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro, said renewable energy only accounts for 20 percent of energy produced in New England. He said when given a choice, “the people of Maine and New England prefer and want clean energy and a reduction of our carbon footprint.”
The two sides have also been arguing how the project will ultimately impact Maine consumers.
Dudley said Tuesday that Maine ratepayers would save $40 million a year in lower electricity costs due to price suppression caused by the higher volume of electricity on the New England grid. Opponents say the project would have no direct impact on electricity rates in Maine.
The project has won unwavering support from Lewiston officials, as CMP has projected the city will receive $5 million in annual tax revenue from the converter station project.
To build the transmission line, Avangrid/CMP needs to win a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which means it must convince PUC commissioners there is a need for this new transmission line. To define “need,” the commission will consider factors that include financial harm to customers, economic impact, reliability and the specific route.
CMP spokesman John Carroll said Tuesday the company eventually needs project approval from the PUC, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission.
The company would also need local zoning approvals from towns within the corridor.
Ely said that over the past week, many western Maine towns have reversed course to either oppose or rescind previous support for the project.
Wednesday’s hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s offices in Hallowell.