Canada: All politics are local: restructuring transportation projects for success in the United States
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“All politics are local” is an observation attributed to Tip O’Neill, the powerful speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987. Putting this motto into practice, O’Neill has been re-elected to Congress 16 times and was later described by President Clinton as “the most eminent, most powerful and most loyal champion of the working people.”
In recent years, American politicians have struggled to win the loyalty of the 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 was trying to re-engage rural and non-college voters who have moved away from his party through targeted measures that will provide concrete and immediate individual benefits, such as relief checks and improved unemployment benefits.
Local objections to electricity corridors
Only time will tell how successful these efforts will be from a political point of view. What we can say is that the phenomenon of voter alienation has had an impact on the Canadian energy sector. In Maine, for example, a 1,200 MW power line intended to carry green electricity from Quebec to Massachusetts could be derailed by opposition from the kind of voters President Biden is courting. The project, known by its acronym NECEC, crosses the second congressional district of Maine, which is one of the most rural in the U.S. It was in fact the only region in the northeastern United States to give former President Trump an electoral vote (Maine divides its electoral vote by constituency rather than using the win-for-all approach of almost every other state).
Opponents of the transportation plan include local residents, hunters and indigenous groups, as well as national environmental groups and incumbent power companies. At their request, the state of Maine will hold a referendum on November 2, 2021 which – if opponents win – would effectively block the NECEC.
As was the case a few years ago with the now abandoned Northern Pass transmission project, which offered a route from Quebec to Massachusetts via New Hampshire, not everyone along the route thinks that allowing the lines high voltage to cross their state to meet the needs of Bostonians is a good thing
in itself, especially where there are few direct benefits to local residents (in Maine, in this case). Concerns about climate change, which are a selling point for the project, remain a distant concern for many.
Responses to local concerns
In these situations, it is tempting for project promoters to respond by questioning the intentions and good faith of their opponents (often in light of who their supporters and funders are). If they take that route, however, they attack the way politics is played in the United States and in so doing make the type of complaint that usually falls on deaf ears – especially when promoters of the project are from another country. But more importantly, in this case, such supporters would not address the real issue, which is the concerns of voters typical of Maine’s Second Congressional District.
Electricity transmission projects such as NECEC, which must pass through states or provinces that they do not supply directly, are mercantilist in nature. Their somewhat abstract “green” credentials are usually insufficient to overcome opposition to the physical reality of a high voltage transmission line running through a community. The main lesson to be learned from the Northern Pass and NECEC is that the days of traditional one-way export projects are drawing to a close. To improve their prospects for success, projects should now be structured in such a way as to:
- assist the local renewable energy industry, with services such as energy storage, and
- bring direct and tangible benefits to communities along their journey.
It is important that Canadian energy exporters understand the “local politics” of the regions affected by their proposals. One reason is that the market is becoming more and more competitive: Technological developments allow renewable electricity to be produced just about anywhere at a competitive cost, even in the Northeastern United States. overcrowded. The 800 MW Vineyard Wind 1 offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts has just received federal approval and is a testament to how quickly things are changing in the field of renewable energy.
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