Portland Press Herald

Maine Voices: Amid corner-cutting on CMP corridor plan,
citizens’ hands are tied

By Jake A. Plante

Maine needs more authority to conduct comprehensive environmental studies of significant and/or controversial projects

Understanding the review process for the Central Maine Power corridor project is a daunting task. Multiple federal and state agencies are assessing different environmental aspects of the project, resulting in a patchwork of analysis. Moreover, some legitimate concerns, like climate change, have been ignored or marginalized. Just as concerning is the lack of transparency, exemplified by the federal government’s unwillingness to allow public review of its draft findings.

Maine residents deserve more than a bare-bones assessment of a massive $1 billion, 145-mile transmission line involving 92 miles of expansion and 53 miles of new construction that cuts through pristine Maine wilderness and wildlife habitat. It’s important for us to know if the impacts are justified, if more mitigation is possible and if the long-term financial windfall to CMP/Avangrid is fair to Maine.

No one begrudges Massachusetts for wanting cleaner energy. Indeed, this is an interesting case of competing green goals. But the economic and environmental trade-offs need to be fully considered. For instance, why is it impractical for Massachusetts to invest in home-grown renewable energy?

But the biggest concern is process. Why should Maine citizens have to beg for the facts? It’s silly that our state legislators had to introduce special legislation (which failed) to compel due diligence. A true evaluation of climate and greenhouse gases, the main rationale for the project, should be automatic. Yet it’s not happening.

Nor should Maine citizens have to beg to be heard. Why did it take U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s political muscle for the Army Corps of Engineers to hold a public hearing?

A project of this magnitude should have to stand up to scrutiny. Doing less sets a bad precedent, especially with CMP. If you exhaust the goodwill of your customers with billing mismanagement, and J.D. Power ranks you dead last among 87 electric utility companies nationally, don’t you think you would go the extra mile to win back public confidence?

Although Maine can be proud of some of the best environmental policies in the country, we lag behind on environmental review procedures. At least 16 other states surpass Maine in this regard, including Connecticut and Massachusetts. These states have laws that mirror the National Environmental Policy Act, allowing them to conduct their own environmental impact studies if a project involves state funding and sometimes permitting.

“It makes a huge difference,” Fred Riese, senior environmental analyst for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told me, adding that the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act ensures “ample opportunity for public involvement in the process.”

Maine needs this type of ability to assess actions like the corridor project where significant impacts are possible, or serious public controversy arises Both represent high thresholds that would not touch the vast majority of state development.

Maine’s existing procedural mandates are inadequate in this case. A law in Maine like the National Environmental Policy Act would fix the problem by giving the state more authority and responsibility to conduct a comprehensive environmental study. It would guarantee that all relevant information was considered, that the analysis and interpretation were integrated and that the public had opportunities to shape the study initially and to review the draft analysis before it went final.

These features are integral to a federal environmental impact study. But the Corps of Engineers has rejected doing one, which Vermont and New Hampshire received on similar transmission line proposals. It’s clearly unfair and inconsistent – all the more reason why Maine needs the ability to set analytical ground rules of its own, and in the process, make it incumbent on federal agencies to coordinate with us.

With a state NEPA law, we wouldn’t need political arm-twisting or a ballot referendum to do what’s so basic – researching and disclosing all of the facts and allowing proper public review.

Given what we’re seeing, and federal threats to roll back the National Environmental Policy Act, it would be wise to strengthen state statutes in this area so that no one cuts corners on the next consequential development proposal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jake A. Plante is a resident of Brunswick and author of the book “Uncle Sam and Mother Earth: Shaping the Nation’s Environmental Path.”

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