It’s official. In November, Mainers will get to vote on whether we should have a new way to say “no.”

The Secretary of State’s Office has validated more than 80,000 signatures, 20,000 more than needed to put a question on the ballot designed to cripple the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line project, which would bring Canadian hydroelectric power bought by Massachusetts utilities to the regional electric grid through Maine.

After a first attempt to overturn regulatory approvals for the project by referendum was stopped by the courts, this question would create some retroactive zoning and new hurdles for transmission line projects, including legislative approval for all “high-impact projects” and required two-thirds support in both houses if the proposed transmission lines cross state land.

While the opponents clearly have one project in their sights, this question is going to affect other transmission projects at a time when we can expect to see more of them in the national response to the climate crisis.

We may be running out of time in the fight to slow global warming, but it’s not because we don’t know what to do.

Most experts agree that we need to quickly start using electricity for everything that we burn fossil fuels for now, including transportation and home heating. And we need to get that electricity from renewable sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases.


It only sounds simple.

Moving all that electricity from generation sources that don’t yet exist to the places where it’s needed, and making sure the systems that we plan to rely on for absolutely everything are sufficiently backed up to withstand threats from severe weather or cyberterrorism, is going to take a long-term commitment to building infrastructure  – and lots of it.

And there are a couple of things about infrastructure: It’s really expensive, and, for the most part, it’s really ugly.

No one wants a sewage treatment plant in their backyard or a highway cloverleaf outside their picture window. But we have processes in place to site projects that are essential to the public’s well-being.

A high-voltage transmission line is about the ugliest piece of essential infrastructure that exists. It’s a scar on the landscape, with clear-cut buffer on either side so it won’t blend into the scenery. The approval process for siting one is extraordinarily complex, with regulatory bodies on the state and local level able to veto the project at every stage.

NECEC, which is a project of Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec, has gotten almost all the approvals that it needs, except one from the court of public opinion.


That’s not going to be easy to get, since there is more than one reason to be against the project.

Some people sincerely don’t want Maine to participate in a hydroelectric project that has turned Quebec forest into lakes, destroying animal habitat and taking land from Native people without compensation.

There are others who hate CMP, a for-profit corporation with foreign ownership that sends you a bill every month. They don’t trust the company and don’t want to see it get a $1 billion contract, even if it’s not their money.

Some opponents argue that there are different electric grid investments that would do more to facilitate the development of homegrown renewables than this project.

And there are people who live or have second homes in the region, who don’t want to have to look at a power line for the next 40 years.

In the background are the out-of-state owners of natural gas power plants in Maine, who stand to lose millions of dollars if the project is completed. They have not been the most visible opponents, but they are financing the referendum campaign, spending $1.5 million through their political action committee, Mainers for Local Power, late last year to get the question on the ballot.


There are other reasons people say they oppose the project, and opponents do not have to agree on any of them. As long as they all say “no,” whatever the reason, they win.

Not all of the opponents are environmentalists, but they all use the language and tactics of the environmental movement, which, for decades, has been centered on mobilizing public opinion to stop bad things from happening.

Environmentalists have used regulatory processes and the courts to say “no” to polluters, and the world is better off as a result.

But you can see the same rhetoric used by homeowners who don’t want to see development in their neighborhood.

And, as in this referendum campaign, you can see corporations use the same tactics to fight competitors.

If successful, the referendum will give Maine people more ways to say “no.” But as we respond to the climate crisis, we will also need ways to say “yes.”

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