“All politics is local” is an observation attributed to Tip O’Neill, the powerful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987. Putting this motto into practice, O’Neill was re-elected to Congress 16 times and was later described by President Clinton as “the nation's most prominent, powerful and loyal champion of working people.”
In recent years, U.S. politicians have struggled to gain the loyalty of working class and rural voters. In an “Axios on HBO” interview that aired on May 7, 2021, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont observed that President Biden is trying to re-engage rural and non-college educated voters who have drifted away from his party through targeted measures which will provide concrete and immediate individual benefits, such as relief cheques and enhanced unemployment benefits.
Local Objections to Electricity Corridors
Only time will tell how successful such efforts will be from a political perspective. What we can say is that the phenomenon of voter alienation has had an impact on the Canadian energy business. In Maine, for example, a 1,200MW transmission line to transport green electricity from Québec to Massachusetts could be derailed by opposition from the type of voters that President Biden is courting. The project, known by its acronym NECEC, passes through Maine’s second congressional district, which is one of the most rural in the U.S. It was, in fact, the only region in the U.S. Northeast to give an electoral vote to former President Trump (Maine divides its electoral vote by district rather than using the winner-take-all approach of nearly all of the other states).
Opponents of the transmission project include local residents, hunters and indigenous groups, as well as national environmental groups and incumbent electricity companies. At their urging, the State of Maine will hold a referendum on November 2, 2021, that — should the opponents prevail — would effectively block NECEC.
As was the case a few years ago with the now abandoned Northern Pass transmission project, which proposed a route from Québec to Massachusetts via New Hampshire, not everyone along the route thinks that allowing high voltage power lines to cross their state to serve the needs of Bostonians is a good thing per se, particularly when there is little direct benefit for local residents (in Maine, in this case). Climate change concerns, which are a selling point for the project, remain a remote concern for many.
Responses to Local Concerns
It is tempting in these situations for project proponents to respond by questioning the intentions and good faith of their opponents (often in light of who their supporters and financial backers are). If they take this route, however, they are attacking the way politics is played in the U.S., and in the process are making the type of complaint that usually falls on deaf ears – especially when the project proponents are from another country. But more importantly, in this case, such proponents would not be addressing the real issue, which is the concerns of typical voters in Maine’s second congressional district.
Power transmission projects such as NECEC, which need to transit through states or provinces that they do not directly supply, are mercantilist by nature. Their somewhat abstract “green” credentials are usually insufficient to overcome opposition to the physical reality of a high-voltage transmission line passing through a community. The main lesson to be drawn from Northern Pass and NECEC is that the time for traditional one-way export projects is drawing to an end. To improve their prospects for success, projects will now have to be structured so as to:
- assist the local renewable power industry, with services such as energy storage, and
- provide concrete direct benefits to the communities along their paths.
It is important for Canadian energy exporters to understand the “local politics” of the areas affected by their proposals. One reason for this is that the market is becoming increasingly competitive: technological developments are making it possible to produce renewable electricity just about anywhere at a competitive cost, even in the crowded U.S. Northeast. The 800MW Vineyard Wind 1 offshore wind power project off the coast of Massachusetts has just received federal approval and is evidence of how quickly things are changing in the renewable energy space.