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Quebec utility’s PR campaign sows doubts about US environmentalists

A Canadian public utility is sowing doubts about its environmental critics as part of a PR campaign to gain approval of a 145-mile power line to New England.

H.Q. Energy Services, the US subsidiary of Hydro-Quebec, has hired two public relations firms as part of its efforts to convince Maine voters to approve the $1 billion transmission line in a November referendum. Newly revealed polling questions from one of them, Forbes Tate Partners of Washington, raise concerns in potential voters’ minds about corporate interests backing the environmental groups that seek to block the project.

The Canadian utility hired Forbes Tates for a maximum of $329,000 earlier this month, Foreign Lobby Report first reported July 13. The questions were disclosed as part of Forbes Tate’s filings with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

As part of the poll, Forbes Tate seeks to gauge the public response to arguments in favor of the project, including the promise of clean hydro-power and lower bills. It then goes on to catalog accusations that domestic US oil and gas companies are backing Hydro-Quebec’s detractors:

Forbes Tate polling questions disclosed with the Department of Justice

Critics have hit back with their own accusations against the Canadian utility.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 25 current and former Maine legislators wrote to Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Hydro-Quebec President and CEO Sophie Brochu urging the utility to “cease all further campaign activities in Maine and let the people of Maine vote without further meddling in our elections.” The utility has formed a political action committee that is on track to spend more than $10 million to influence the election, sparking efforts in the Maine statehouse to ban future foreign funding of referendum campaigns.

And today the Natural Resources Council of Maine put out a report tracking various aspects of Hydro-Quebec’s influence operations, including Forbes Tate’s polling.

“Maine has never witnessed such brazen efforts by an agent of a foreign government, in this case a foreign government-owned utility, to meddle in Maine’s elections,” Advocacy Director Pete Didisheim said in the release.The breadth and depth of Hydro-Quebec’s campaign activities should raise alarm bells for anyone protecting our election process from foreign government interference.”

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 %.