BOSTON — The state’s plans to import hydropower from Canada to meet its clean energy needs have been dealt another blow after Maine voters approved a referendum seeking to scuttle a transmission line for the $1 billion project.
On Tuesday, Maine voters approved Question 1, which bans construction of “high-impact electric transmission lines” in the Upper Kennebec Region and requires a two-thirds vote by the state Legislature for large transmission projects on public land. The measure was approved by nearly 60%, according to preliminary results.
The ballot question specifically targeted the New England Clean Energy Connect project, which is overseen by Central Maine Power Company and seeks to import up to 1,200 megawatts of electricity from Hydro-Québec’s dams.
Most of the power would be sent to Massachusetts along the transmission corridor, which was previously approved by state and federal agencies.
Backers of the project say the referendum’s passage doesn’t mean the end of the project, and vowed to press on despite its rejection by a majority of voters.
“We believe this referendum, funded by fossil fuel interests, is unconstitutional. With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue,” John Breed, executive director of the group Clean Energy Matters, said in a statement.
CMP’s corporate parent, Avangrid, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking to overturn the results of the referendum, arguing that it violates laws on contracts by targeting a project that had already received approval. The legal challenge also seeks an injunction to block enforcement of the new law and allow construction to proceed while the case is being considered.
"This referendum was an act of bad faith by self-interested proponents and was targeted at stopping a single project," Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of the New England Clean Energy Connect, said in a statement.
Opponents of the project, who say it would destroy forests and cost jobs, praised the outcome of the referendum and called on the utility to shut it down.
“The vote sends a message to CMP that Mainers want to reject this corridor,” Sandi Howard, of the group No CMP Corridor, said in a statement. “Mainers clearly don’t trust CMP to develop a project of this magnitude.”
A similar referendum was knocked off the ballot last year by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but opponents of the hydropower line reworded the question to pass legal muster and gathered 80,000 signatures to put it on Tuesday’s ballot.
Both sides have waged a costly and bitter public relations war for years over the details of the project, and how it will impact the state and its ratepayers.
Supporters and opponents of the project poured nearly $100 million into efforts to sway voters, making it the most expensive ballot question in Maine’s history.
But the rejection of the transmission line by Maine voters has major implications for Massachusetts, where officials have been scrambling to import hydropower after a first choice for a large-scale procurement from Canada was ditched.
A proposed 192-mile transmission line through New Hampshire was rejected by state regulators in 2018 amid concerns it would hurt property values and Granite State tourism.
A law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year requires Massachusetts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The plan calls for expanding the use of wind power, solar and hydropower.
Baker told reporters on Monday that he wasn’t sure what the immediate impact of Maine voters approving the referendum would mean for Massachusetts’ clean energy goals, but said rejecting the hydropower corridor would set a “really difficult precedent” for efforts to bring more clean energy into the regional power grid.
“Electrifying big pieces of what is currently a fossil fuel-based economy isn’t going to work if people aren’t willing to accept transmission capacity,” Baker told reporters at a briefing. “You can’t get from here to there without transmission capacity.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.