A television and social media ad critical of Gov. Janet Mills for backing Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line is drawing fire from CMP and project supporters, which charge that a New York-based biomass energy firm that received nearly $4 million this week in Maine taxpayer subsidies is among the interests underwriting the campaign.

But that company, ReEnergy Holdings, said Wednesday that while it opposes the New England Clean Energy Connect project, it didn’t pay for the ad.

The mystery over who’s bankrolling the ad is the latest flashpoint in the power line debate, which is becoming one of the most contentious Maine environmental battles in decades.

The ad is being run by Stop the Corridor, a coalition that includes ReEnergy, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine Renewable Energy Association, Environment Maine and No CMP Corridor. It accuses Mills of negotiating a “backroom deal” with CMP – a reference to her signing on last week to a settlement agreement in front of state utility regulators reviewing the project. It says that Mills switched sides after being elected and asks Mainers to call and tell her to stop making deals with CMP. The obvious intent is to pressure Mills to change her position.

But the NRCM, the state’s leading environmental group, said it’s not funding the ad. The renewable association, which represents wind, solar and hydro generators, said it wasn’t aware of the campaign until it started running last week.

A regional voice for power plant owners fighting the project, the New England Power Generators Association, also denied knowing anything about the ad. In September, the Press Herald determined that the Boston-based group was a behind-the-scenes source for setting up a local-sounding opposition campaign.

Riley Ploch, a spokesman for Stop the Corridor, declined Wednesday to identify the ad’s funders.

“We don’t discuss the internal workings of our broad coalition made up of thousands of Mainers,” he said, “or our strategic decisions in opposition to CMP/Iberdrola’s unpopular proposal to knock a corridor through the western Maine woods.”

OPPOSITION POURS IN

Ploch said that since Mills signed the settlement, thousands of Mainers have expressed their disappointment and opposition through phone calls, emails and social media.

“It is an indisputable fact that the people of Maine do not want CMP’s corridor in their state,” he said, “so the governor and her administration should slow down, consider all the facts, and re-evaluate whether this corridor is right for Maine.”

Mills joined interests including the Public Advocate’s Office, industrial energy users and two regional environmental groups in endorsing a proposed settlement that would allow CMP to build the roughly $1 billion line to bring hydropower from Quebec through Maine to Massachusetts. In exchange, Maine would get a total of $258 million in benefits over 40 years in the form of lower rates and help with clean-energy investments such as heat pumps and electric-vehicle charging stations, and other considerations. Mills said the settlement struck a balance and that a new source of Canadian hydro would be an important step to tempering climate change and cutting carbon emissions.

“We can’t say no to every single project,” Mills said at a news conference Feb. 21.

Asked Wednesday to comment, Mills spokesman Scott Ogden defended the governor’s position and took a shot at the unnamed parties behind the ad.

“Gov. Mills expects – and welcomes – a robust and truthful discussion regarding the New England Clean Energy Connect project, a discussion that should be based on facts, not speculation and mystery,” Ogden said. “Unfortunately, the campaign-style ad released this week – the funders of which are unclear – misrepresents Gov. Mills’ stance on the project and the process in which the Governor’s Energy Office participated.”

AD IMPRESSIONS

Mills’ position in the PUC case isn’t the final word. Bills are pending in the Legislature that could hobble the project, according to Dylan Voorhees, clean-energy director at the NRCM. Mills may at some point be faced with a veto decision on those bills.

Also ramping up is a protracted hearing process at the Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission, which also must issue permits for the project.

“There’s a lot more that’s going to happen,” Voorhees said. “Anyone can take a second look at this project, and the governor’s opinion matters.”

CMP has drawn attention to the ad this week, calling it part of a well-funded, dark-money campaign against the project.

“It’s a pretty nasty ad,” John Carroll, a spokesman for the power line, said via email. “I know people didn’t care much about it when anonymous donors spent money attacking CMP, but now they’re going after the governor.”

The ad began running on Feb. 20 in all three of Maine’s television markets and on social media.

According to the Facebook ad archive, Stop the Corridor paid between $500 and $999 for 100,000 to 200,000 impressions – the number of times a post is displayed. As of Wednesday, the highest number of impressions, 12 percent, has come from men, ages 25-34. The next-highest, 11 percent, from women ages 55-64.

All the impressions are from Maine Facebook accounts.

ReEnergy became a suspect as the ad’s backer because the company also was in the news this week.

In 2016, the Legislature approved a controversial, two-year program to help keep Maine’s struggling biomass power plants running. It’s a subsidy given to plants that meet certain requirements for employment, investment and wood purchase. On Tuesday, the PUC approved $3.9 million for ReEnergy to cover last year’s performance at plants it owns in Ashland and Fort Fairfield.

But the money won’t save the plants. Last fall, Fort Fairfield’s closed because, even with a subsidy, it couldn’t compete in the wholesale electricity market. Now the company says Ashland also is uneconomic and will close next month. The company’s two remaining plants are in Livermore Falls and Stratton.

Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group and an architect of the PUC settlement agreement, says ReEnergy and the other members of Stop the Corridor can’t have it both ways. They say they didn’t pay for the ad, but they are members of the coalition behind it and haven’t disowned or disassociated themselves from it.

“The operative rule,” Buxton said, “is ‘follow the money.’ But that is hard to do here. Parentage is denied all around. We are being asked to believe that this ad is an orphan left at the virtual doorstep of the Maine people. No reasonable person can believe that.”

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]

Twitter: TuxTurkel

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