Supporters of Pine Tree Power deliver boxes of petitions with more than 80,000 signatures last fall to the Maine State Capitol in Augusta.
Supporters of Pine Tree Power deliver boxes of petitions with more than 80,000 signatures last fall to the Maine State Capitol in Augusta, well over the 63,000 required to get their citizen initiative on the ballot this November. Credit: Maine Beacon / Credit: Maine Beacon /

In case you missed it: Enmax Energy Corp., the public utility owned by the City of Calgary, has poured millions of dollars into a campaign targeting voters in the U.S state of Maine. It is trying to persuade them not to vote to create a publicly owned utility to take over generation and distribution of electricity. 

So while Albertans are battered by outlandish jumps in electricity prices here in Wildrose Country, a group of citizens of the Pine Tree State on the other side of the continent have mounted a popular campaign to use Maine’s citizen initiative legislation to create a public not-for-profit state-wide utility. 

It’s a David-and-Goliath fight, with supporters of the proposed Pine Tree Power Company cast in the role of David.

Enmax, meanwhile, spent $1.8 billion in 2020 to buy Maine’s Versant Power, and Spain’s Iberdrola SA, which owns Central Maine Power. They play Goliath in this drama.

According to a filing with the Maine Ethics Commission, Enmax has now committed $8.4 million US ($11.4 million Cdn) to support a Political Action Committee called Maine Energy Progress to squelch the drive for a publicly owned and run utility. 

The Ballotpedia web page says Maine Energy Progress, which was set up by Enmax and Versant, and another PAC called Maine Affordable Energy, have together raised $27.5 million to fight the initiative.

Meanwhile, Ballotpedia says a pro-initiative PAC called Our Power has raised $840,000. 

Grassroots campaign gaining support

But while Pine Tree Power supporters’ financial resources may be tiny, their grassroots campaign has succeeded in getting the initiative onto a state ballot on November 7. They collected more than 80,000 signatures last year, well over the 63,000 required. 

The approved question reads: “Do you want to create a new power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?”

And polling last spring by the Bangor Daily News suggests Mainers are roughly split on the initiative, with a significant number of undecided voters. Polling in March and April of 650 state residents, partly by phone and partly online, showed 41 per cent intended to support the initiative, 40 per cent planned to vote no, and 19 per cent were undecided. 

The Our Power Maine campaign has also attracted some powerful voices of support. Best known in Canada, probably, is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who said “Mainers are facing price-gouging and immoral disconnection notices from multinational utility companies.” (Our Power Maine says power companies disconnected 90,000 ratepayers this year, 10 per cent of the state’s ratepayers.) 

“Power belongs in the hands of the people, not greedy corporations,” Sanders said. “Fortunately, Mainers have a rare chance to take control of an important part of their daily lives. Instead of a private power system that last year sent $187 million in profits out of the country, Mainers can have cheaper, more reliable power—and help fight climate change at the same time.”

“We have in Maine some of the worst utility companies in the nation,” says a Pine Tree Power supporter on the campaign’s Facebook page. “Utilities that are consistently lobbying against and delaying clean energy.”

According to the Our Power Maine website, state residents pay 49 per cent more on average for residential service than do customers of the state’s existing consumer-owned utilities. “Maine ratepayers stand to save over $9 billion over 30 years by replacing CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned utility,” the pro-initiative site says.

Meanwhile, the Enmax-financed Maine Energy Progress website sternly warns that “a government-controlled utility company is a risk Mainers can’t afford.” 

“Ratepayers would take on $13.5 billion in debt with no plan to lower rates, improve reliability, or fight climate change,” the PAC site continues. 

Enmax’s Calgary origins

Readers might recall that Enmax got its start as the City of Calgary Electric System. In 1996, Calgary City Council approved a scheme to make the city’s electric system a wholly owned subsidiary of Enmax starting in 1998. 

Enmax was structured as a private company owned 100 per cent by the city. The goal appears to have been to comply with the Texas-style deregulation of Alberta’s energy market in 2000 by the government of Premier Ralph Klein, a former mayor of Calgary.

According to the Globe and Mail, Alberta’s deregulation legislation was influenced by a lobbyist for Enron Corp., the Houston-based energy distribution company that collapsed a year later in scandal, criminal charges, and bankruptcy. 

Last month, Calgary City Council supported Enmax, describing the company’s Maine campaign as a cost of doing business and an effort to protect the city’s investment. Enmax told Global News at the time it expects to be compensated for Versant’s full market value in the event its side loses the vote.. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...