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Quebec power company hires second PR firm to sway Maine vote on transmission line

Quebec’s public utility has hired a second public relations firm amid fierce opposition to its plans to build a transmission line through the Maine woods.

H.Q. Energy Services (U.S.), a subsidiary of Montreal-based Hydro-Quebec, hired Forbes Tate Partners of Washington on July 7 to conduct “research, surveys, polling, and message development,” according to a new filing with the US Department of Justice. The contract is for a maximum of $329,000.

The Canadian utility had previously retained local PR firm Blaze Partners of Yarmouth for $300,000 to provide “strategic advice, digital media planning/buying and public relations services,” Foreign Lobby Report first reported June 1.

Hydro-Quebec and its partner Central Maine Power (CMP) face intense push-back from Maine’s environmental lobby over their planned $1 billion, 145-mile transmission line to bring hydropower to New England. Key state regulators have already approved the project, but Maine voters will get to decide its fate in a referendum in November.

Polls have consistently shown the transmission line is unpopular. A poll of 500 registered voters conducted in May by Beacon Research found a 20-point spread, with respondents opposing the proposed corridor project 47 % to 27 %.

“They [Hydro-Quebec] absolutely know that they’re underwater on this,” Natural Resources Council of Maine Advocacy Director Pete Didisheim and project opponent told Foreign Lobby Report. “And I think hiring a DC firm is their effort to try to ratchet up their PR campaign even further.”

Neither Forbes Tate nor Hydro-Quebec responded to requests for comment.

The new contract runs through Nov. 15, two weeks after the election. Forbes Tate has already been paid $50,000.

The Washington firm’s intervention comes as Hydro-Quebec is already under attack over outside influence in a local election. Maine Ethics Commission records show that H.Q. Energy Services (U.S.) has spent more more than $6.2 million to defeat the ballot initiative.

“They absolutely know that they’re underwater on this.”

Pete Didisheim, Natural Resources Council of Maine

Hydro-Quebec insists the 1,200 MW project will keep forest destruction to a minimum while creating the region’s largest source of renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering energy costs. Last week, Hydro-Quebec said that Mainers would get discounted electricity from the power line, which is expected to primarily serve customers in Massachusetts.

Opponents include environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club as well as rival energy companies. They have raised concerns about environmental damage from both the transmission line and Canada’s giant dams.

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The massive sums for a local election have prompted a state lawmaker to seek to close what some are calling a campaign finance loophole. 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.

Forbes Tate’s deliverables include:

  • 35 30-minute in-depth interviews (due on or about July 20; $30,000);
  • 25 in-depth interviews (on or about Sept. 20; $24,000);
  • Social & traditional media Insights benchmark (due on or about July 9; $13,000);
  • Maximum of five social/traditional media follow-up reports (biweekly, beginning Sept. 1; $3,000 per report);
  • Benchmark poll (on or about July 31; $41,000);
  • Data enhancement and targeting analysis (on or about July 31; $11,000);
  • Maximum of five tracking surveys (biweekly, beginning Sept. 1; $31,000 per report); and
  • Ad tracking for a maximum of four months (weekly reports; $7,500 per month).

Registered foreign agents on the account include Forbes Tate founding partner Jeffrey Forbes, a former deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton. Also working the account are Caitlin Gallagher, Rick Murphy, Wendy Smith, Stacia Tipton and Doug Usher. The contract was signed by Forbes Tate Managing Partner Zach Williams and H.Q. Energy Services (U.S.) Communications Director Serge Abergel.

Update: This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. on July 12 with comment from Natural Resources Council of Maine Advocacy Director Pete Didisheim.