Contested Canadian hydro power plan moves closer to Maine referendum

·2-min read

(Reuters) - A disputed plan to build high-voltage transmission lines supplying hydropower from Canada's Quebec to New England moved closer on Monday to a vote in a fall referendum, after the state of Maine approved a petition from opponents of the project.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said the petition against the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) project had more than 80,500 signatures, allowing it to move toward a possible statewide vote on Nov. 2.

This is the second time opponents of the 1,200-megawatt NECEC project have submitted a petition asking for a referendum on the energy corridor. The first did not survive a challenge from utility Central Maine Power, which is building the project.

The project, worth more than $1.4 billion in investments, comes as Canada sees an opportunity for increased hydropower exports in U.S. President Joe Biden's push to achieve a carbon-free electrical grid by 2035.

Hydro Quebec, Canada's largest electricity producer, has secured state and federal permits to provide energy for Maine and Massachusetts, in what would be the first transmission line tie-in from the Canadian province of Quebec to the U.S. grid in 30 years.

But the project faces opposition, mainly from groups that argue the 145-mile (233 km) transmission line would damage Maine's forests and wildlife habitat and stifle the state's own renewable energy industry.

According to Maine's constitution, voters can add specific questions to state ballot papers if enough registered voters sign a petition. Once a petition is verified, legislators can choose to enact the bill as written or to send it forward to a statewide vote.

Sue Ely, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the transmission lines, said the acceptance of the petition was a "hugely important step."

Hydro Quebec said by email it remains confident in the project. "Our recent poll shows there is enthusiasm and support for the NECEC which is currently providing hundreds of good paying jobs in Maine."

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Nia Williams in Calgary; editing by Richard Pullin)