In a usually uneventful off-year election, Maine voters sparked headlines by rejecting, by a 60% majority in a statewide referendum, Central Maine Power’s $1-billion hydropower corridor project under construction, as utility owner Avangrid filed suit the next day, claiming the measure violates state and federal law.
Utilities spent more than $90 million leading up to the referendum measure, which sought to ban the 145-mi New England Clean Energy Corridor that would create a transmission system to import hydroelectric power from Quebec into the New England grid. The measure also sets a new requirement for legislative oversight of similar projects in the future.
Question 1 sought voter okay of an “act to require legislative approval of certain transmission lines, require legislative approval of certain transmission lines and facilities and other projects on public reserve lands and prohibit the construction of certain transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region [of Maine]," said a statement from its backers issued earlier this year. They said then that, If enacted, the law will be retroactive and effectively block the project.
CMP parent Avangrid announced the suit, filed late on Nov. 3 in Maine Superior Court, claiming the referendum is "unconstitutional and violates both state and federal law." It also asks the court for an immediate injunction preventing retroactive enforcement against the project, "so that ongoing time-sensitive and essential construction is not disrupted while this lawsuit proceeds," said Thom Dickenson, CEO of Avangrid unit NECEC Transmission LLC, in a statement. He said the firm expects the court to rule on the injunction request "promptly."
Maine's high court last year rejected a similar anti-corridor measure as unconstitutional, ruling that it usurped power given to regulators.
Dickinson said the measure "was an act of bad faith by self-interested proponents and was targeted at stopping a single project.” The utility and project supporters have contended that "fossil fuel interests" financially backed the referendum campaign.
He said the firm has "followed the rules every step of the way in a transparent and public process and received every state and federal regulatory approval required for this project to proceed." Three environmental groups have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, however, seeking to have the court order it to perform a more stringent environmental review.
The transmission link is mostly being built on land owned or controlled by Central Maine Power, which claimed that the project will make energy, environmental and economic improvements in Maine and New England, with opponents disputing some of the arguments.
In addition to widening the existing corridor to set poles and string new lines, contractors Cianbro Corp. and Irby Construction were set to build a $250-million converter station in Lewiston, Maine that will convert direct current into alternating current to feed into the electric grid, Avangrid said previously.
Project Completion Was Set for 2023
Construction began in early 2021 and to date, about 124 miles of the transmission corridor have been cleared and about 120 structures installed, said NECEC on Nov. 3. About 53 miles of new corridor on working forest land were set to rely on a new clearing method of tapered vegetation, according to Avangrid.
Work was expected to finish by second quarter 2023 to deliver 1,200 MW of Canadian renewable hydropower to the Lewiston hub, with costs paid by Massachusetts ratepayers. Local media say Avangrid has made an estimated $350-million investment in the project so far.
But opponents remain adamant in their effort to end construction.
“The vote sends a message to CMP that Mainers want to reject this corridor," said Sandi Howard, director of No CMP Corridor. "They want to preserve the integrity of western Maine and ... don’t trust CMP to develop a project of this magnitude.”
The vote now heads for signature or veto by Gov. Janet Mills (D), who announced that she voted “no” on the measure. “Fundamentally for me, it’s not about CMP. It’s about climate change," she said in a radio address. "We need clean energy. We need reliable electricity. We have got to turn down the furnace and … say no to fossil fuels.”
If enacted, the measure would take effect on Jan. 3.
Kim Hokanson, regional manager for the Northern New England North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, says the union has worked with Mills and CMP to retain work on the project, which also includes non union workers.
"As the job will now be stalled, this will give the governor and all involved the opportunity to address concerns from the citizens in Maine." she told ENR. "Although this project did not generate many carpenter hours, we look forward to working out a solution.”
Some Money Measures Win Big, Others Fall Flat
Maine voters were more willing to endorse transportation construction, approving by a large margin the state’s third transportation bond proposal in two years—a $100-million measure that, combined with federal matching funds, will pay for 50 bridge projects, as well as highway upgrades, maintenance work and railroad, transit and port initiatives. Generally popular among Maine voters, bonds have increasingly become a go-to source to address revenue shortfalls, as the state legislature has been unable to agree on a long-term funding plan.
In the only other statewide industry-related measure, a voter-approved amendment to the Texas state constitution allows counties to issue bonds or notes for non-tolled transportation infrastructure in underdeveloped areas. Incorporated cities and towns were already authorized to use this funding option, which is repaid via property tax revenue.
A $1.2-billion school construction and renovation bond proposal in Fort Worth, its largest ever, was narrowly approved on Nov. 3, although city voters rejected three other schoolbuilding initiatives totaling $300 million.
Of climate- and energy-related proposals on ballots, the most successful was Virginia Beach, Va.’s $568-million bond issue to bolster city defenses in the face of more frequent and severe flooding events attributed in part to rising sea levels.
Approved by more than 70% of voters, the measure funds the initial phase of a $1.5-billion flood protection program that includes construction of new pump stations and tide gates, drainage system improvements and road elevations. A 100-acre city-owned golf course is also set to be closed and converted into a stormwater collection facility.
But in Richmond, s proposal for a $650-million casino complex, which was touted as a potential economic stimulus for the city’s southside neighborhoods, was narrowly rejected in a vote tally not clear until Nov. 3.
In Columbus, Ohio, however, voters soundly defeated a controversial proposal to commit $87 million toward advancing energy efficiency efforts in the city. Coming in the wake of last year’s successful vote to transition Columbus to 100% renewable energy, the measure would have established programs to subsidize electric customers’ bills and fund education and minority business enterprise efforts, all of which would be directed by the proposal’s small, secretive group of proponents.
Calling the proposal “the biggest scam in the city’s history,” Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) led the chorus of city officials opposing the measure, on the ballot only because of a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Also losing big at the polls in Boston was a non-binding referendum gauging support for a controversial proposal to build a new electrical substation to serve the city’s eastern neighborhoods, which include Logan International Airport. Although energy provider Eversource claimed the facility was needed to meet growing power needs, more than 80% of voters agreed with opponents’ contentions that it would exacerbate existing environmental problems and be vulnerable to flooding.
In Denver, nearly 60% of voters rejected a ballot measure that would have authorized the city to issue $190 million in bonds for a new arena at the National Western Complex, a mixed-use project under construction on the city’s north side. Plans for a third phase of the development include a 10,000-seat arena to replace the aging Denver Coliseum that was supported by Mayor Michael Hancock and area developers, but strongly opposed by neighborhood groups who claim it would worsen traffic and air pollution.
But voters did approve nearly $260 million in bonds for other city improvements and passed an ordinance to ban commercial development on a 155-acre former golf course in east Denver, preferring to retain it as open space. The ordinance gives city voters the right to approve any development on the privately owned property governed by a city-owned conservation easement. Owner Westside Investment Partners wants a mixed-use development there.
An economic development proposal also came up short in Albuquerque, as voters rejected a $50-million bond measure to help fund a multi-use downtown stadium, but several smaller bond proposals for facilities, infrastructure and energy conservation passed, most by wide margins.
Va. Gov.-Elect Said Little on Infrastructure, Reelected NJ Gov Propels Clean Energy
Glenn Youngkin, the business executive who defeated Democrat and former Gov.Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia's governor's race, has joined other Republicans in criticizing the scope and scale of President Joe Biden’s spending proposals, but has said little about his plans for Virginia’s infrastructure programs.
McAuliffe had the support of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, a 300-firm political action group that cited his efforts to boost transportation project investment and protect state funding.
During the campaign, Youngkin repeatedly faulted Virginia’s 2020 Clean Economy Act, which sets an aggressive agenda for developing renewable energy and shuttering fossil fuel power plants. While he is not opposed to wind and solar energy projects, Youngkin claims the transition places an unfair cost burden on utility ratepayers and will not support a growing economy.
“I believe in all energy sources, we can use wind and solar,” Youngkin said during a televised debate this fall, “but we need to preserve our clean natural gas and we can, in fact, have a reliable energy grid.”
Youngkin is also no stranger to construction public-private partnerships. During a three-year stint as co-CEO of The Carlyle Group global investment firm, he helped forge the financing deal for JFK International Airport’s $7.4-billion Terminal One project. His 2020 departure from the firm to launch his gubernatorial bid came amid mixed financial results in other areas of Carlyle’s operations plus reports of conflicts with co-CEO Kewsong Lee, who now leads the company.
The makeup of Virginia’s General Assembly may pose an obstacle to Youngkin’s plans. While Tuesday’s outcome likely gives Republicans a slim majority in the state House of Delegates, Democrats retain a majority in the state Senate, which was not up for election this year.
That may make it more difficult for Youngkin to deliver on campaign promises such as a $1.8-billion package of one-time reductions that would be funded by Virginia’s projected $2.6-billion state budget surplus. Much of the surplus is already committed to other uses under state law, however, including a $1.1-billion contribution to the state’s reserves, $314 million for water quality improvement projects and $116 million to the state’s transportation trust fund.
Virginians could face additional legislative uncertainty, as 2020 federal census data did not arrive in time for the state to adjust House district boundaries in accordance with population shifts. One pending lawsuit would require the state to hold an election using redrawn House districts next year, followed by constitutionally scheduled legislative elections in 2023.
In New Jersey, the only other state with a gubernatorial vote this year, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy narrowly won re-election with a 50.4% margin against Republican business executive and former legislator Jack Ciattarelli, in a surprisingly close tally that stayed unclear until the evening of Nov. 3. Ciattarelli conceded the election on Nov. 12, with no vote recount occurring.
Finally conceding on Nov. 10 is Stephen M. Sweeney, a union iron worker, international union vice president and veteran New Jersey Democratic lawmaker who had served as state Senate President since 2010, almost one week after the Associated Press called the race for his Republican opponent, truck driver Edward Durr, by a 52% to 48% margin, in what is described as a major upset.
Despite some losses of Democratic lawmakers, Murphy propelled the state''s aggressive clean energy program, announcing on Nov. 10 an executive order for a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions below the 2006 level by 2030, in what he termed a "course acceleration." The state program now includes major deployment of offshore wlnd power as a new jobs-producing industry, vehicle electrification and power grid modernization, but the governor did not outline any further steps to meet the new emissions cut target.
State environmental activists praised the order, but a business group executive called it "impractical and unrealistic."