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Quebec power company hires advertising muscle to help sway Maine voters on transmission line

A Canadian public utility has hired an advertising firm to help convince Maine residents to approve a cross-border transmission line largely opposed by the rural state’s powerful environmental lobby.

H.Q. Energy Services (U.S.), a subsidiary of Montreal-based Hydro-Quebec, retained Yarmouth-based Blaze Partners in December to “provide strategic advice, digital media planning/buying and public relations services” ahead of a potential fall vote on the so-called New England Clean Energy Connect project, according to recently disclosed lobbying filings with the US Justice Department. Key state regulators have already approved the $1 billion, 145-mile transmission line to bring hydropower to the regional grid from Quebec but opponents are seeking to get a referendum question on the November ballot.

“There has been considerable opposition to the project from environmentalists concerned with the impact the transmission corridor will have on wildlife and the scenic vistas,” Blaze points out in its registration.  “As the supplier of the hydro-power, and for obvious financial reasons, Hydro-Quebec would like to see this project go forward.”

Blaze Partners is tasked with gauging public opinion on the issue and helping connect HQ Energy Services with media and business leaders. The firm has already been paid about $110,000 for “campaign consulting” since Jan. 25 and has in turn paid Westbrook-based Philbrook PR more than $15,500 for implementing a “public relations strategy” since December. Blaze Partners has registered four people to work on the account: Partner James Hauptman; senior media strategist Eliza Hill; digital strategist Robin Dienel; and public relations consultant Chris Philbrook.

“In our consultancy role, we’re helping to provide some boots on the ground perspective on a clean energy awareness campaign, but aren’t involved in any political lobbying,” Hauptman said.

Hydro-Quebec insists the 1,200 MW project will keep forest destruction to a minimum, all while creating the region’s largest source of renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering energy costs. Opponents – which include environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club as well as rival energy companies – have raised concerns about damage to the environment by both the transmission line running through the Maine woods and Canada’s large-scale dams.

“There has been considerable opposition to the project from environmentalists concerned with the impact the transmission corridor will have on wildlife and the scenic vistas. As the supplier of the hydro-power, and for obvious financial reasons, Hydro-Quebec would like to see this project go forward.”

Blaze Partners lobbying filing

The Quebec Government Office in Boston, which represents the provincial government in New England, has also played a part in the Maine saga, notably by meeting with state officials and attending events sponsored by the pro-transmission line coalition Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, according to a lobbying activity log disclosed by the Quebec government’s main US office in New York for the second half of 2019. These include appearances by Hydro-Quebec CEO Eric Martel at an event at the University of Maine in Portland in October, as well as a November appearance by Alain Tremblay, a senior environmental adviser on aquatic ecosystems at Hydro-Quebec, at a panel in Brunswick about “Decarbonizing the New England Electric System.”

Marie-Claude Francoeur, Quebec’s delegate to New England, told Foreign Lobby Report that she attended the two events with Hydro-Quebec officials but that her office was not involved in organizing them or lobbying for the transmission line more generally.

“What I do is I report on the process,” Francoeur said. “I do not influence it by any means. That’s not what we do and that’s not my job.”

Nevertheless, the recent activity comes at a time of heightened concerns about foreign interference in Maine’s elections.

The Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership, a political action committee (PAC) formed by Hydro-Quebec, contributed more than $2 million through the first quarter of 2020 to defeating the proposed ballot question, according to filings with the Maine Ethics Commission. The Hydro-Quebec PAC has also drawn scrutiny from the Maine Ethics Commission for its late disclosure. It was the second-highest spending committee in the first three months of 2020, behind the $5 million spent by Clean Energy Matters, the PAC formed by power line proponent Central Maine Power, or CMP.

“People are very upset about the possibility that an outside entity from a different country would have had a say in how our elections go,” said Sandra Howard, who heads the citizens group that led the petition drive to get the issue on the November ballot. “And I would say that the US shouldn’t have a say in how Canadians make their decisions on elections. I think it’s possible to be collaborators without purposely trying to make decisions for another group of people where it’s not their place.”

The massive sums for a local election have prompted state lawmakers to consider closing what some are calling a loophole in electoral law. While federal law prohibits foreign funding of any political candidate – federal, state or local – those restrictions do not cover referendum campaigns.

“Whether you are for or against, the CMP corridor, every Mainer ought to be disturbed when we see a foreign company, such as Hydro-Quebec, controlled completely by a foreign country, attempt to buy a Maine election,” bill sponsor Kent Ackley told the legislature’s legal affairs panel, Maine Public Radio reported in February. The bill did not pass before the coronavirus crisis shut down the state legislature.

The transmission line proponents aren’t the only ones coming under scrutiny.

In February, the Maine Ethics Commission threatened to fine a political action committee funded by Texas-based natural gas firms Calpine and Vista $25,000 for late filings after they poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign to defeat the transmission line. Separately, in late May the commission asked the dark money group Stop the Corridor to disclose its funders.