Annie Yan

In a time where deforestation and wildfires have ripped apart miles of America’s green space, the state of Maine, despite hosting a bustling logging industry, remains about 90 percent forest. But while Maine — aptly nicknamed “the Pine Tree State” — has managed to preserve much of its natural environment, a new project may place some of its forests in jeopardy.

And activists argue Yale is complicit in that threat.

In Maine, Yale allocates a small part of its $29.4 billion endowment into roughly 814 square miles of timberland through two companies, Bayroot LLC and Typhoon LLC, according to the Bangor Daily News. Yale is heavily invested in both businesses, owning 99 and 91 percent, respectively. Recently, Yale’s stake in the timberland has faced local scrutiny in the wake of a proposed project to construct a new hydroelectric transmission line that will cut through the area.

Measuring 300 feet wide, the power line would snake through 145 miles of forest between Quebec and Lewiston — a Maine town not far from the capital, Augusta. Called the New England Clean Energy Connect and proposed by electricity company Central Maine Power, the power line is anticipated to supply 1,200 megawatts of power to New England. But to Maine’s lawmakers and activists, the move prioritizes profit at the expense of Maine’s greenery — even as Central Maine Power promises renewable energy.

While proponents of the project say that the power line will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Maine, its builders have not publicly stated if it will reduce overall emissions when other regions are included, according to Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties in Maine.CQ

“There’s no actual promise that it’s going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Maloney told the News in an interview. “But [that promise is] not part of their actual proposal; their proposal is that they want to cut this scar through the forest of Maine, and we’re not actually being given a promise.”

Maine’s power line

The corridor is a “superhighway of power,” according to director Sandi Howard of Say NO to NECEC, a grassroots organization campaigning against the corridor, who also said the company will need to carve out 2,000 acres of forest to support the power line. Other groups have echoed Howard’s sentiments, saying that the project comes with environmental repercussions.

To the Natural Resources Council of Maine — an environmental activist group — the line is a “bad deal” for Maine, possibly increasing pollution and jeopardizing growth of Maine’s clean energy market. According to the Council’s website, Central Maine Power — owned by the New England-serving energy company Avangrid — and its Canadian partners would reap the profits, leaving “very little” for local companies. Others argue the power line will curb Maine’s lively tourism and recreation industry.

In Maine, the consequences may be severe for rural towns flanking the power line. Susan Shaw, founder and executive director of the environmental nonprofit Shaw Institute, said the volunteer units supporting these communities lack equipment to handle potential mass blazes from the construction of the corridor. The Maine Federation of Firefighters raised the concern in a letter to the state, underscoring the lack of resources to quench wildfires. 

Two of Maine’s counties lining the proposed construction site significantly oppose the proposal. According to an April poll by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, 90 percent and 83 percent of residents oppose the project in Franklin and Somerset counties, respectively. In addition to the counties, 24 towns — many of which are located within the designated building site — oppose the power line, according to Howard.

State approval for the project is still in flux: While Central Maine Power has already received a permit from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Howard’s organization Say NO to NECEC aims to gather 80,000 signatures by Dec. 31 to leverage a statewide vote on the corridor, which will be on the 2020 ballot if successful in getting the necessary support. According to Howard, the organization has collected about 30,000 signatures in the last few weeks.

“There is legislation currently pending for the session that starts in January that could derail the project,” wrote Maine state Rep. Janice Cooper in an email. According to Howard, “The Maine Land Use Planning Commission will likely decide on the permit at the Jan. 8th meeting.”

For the project to proceed, CMP needs permit approvals from the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, Army Corps of Engineers and the Presidential Permit, which are all in current review. If CMP fails to receive the necessary permits from Maine, then the company will have to attempt getting them approved in Vermont. Maine state Rep. Seth Berry, chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, said “If Maine says no — which appears likely, and Yale has not made friends in Maine by assisting the Maine project — the next choice for Massachusetts of the 46 options is the competing project in Vermont, called the New England Clean Power Link.” The NECPL line is already fully permitted by Vermont and other federal authorities, according to Berry.

But while opposition to the power line is mounting, its builders say the project, in fact, will benefit Maine’s environment and economy. Activists’ accusations against the power line are unfounded, according to Ted Varipatis, Director of Communications and Media Relations for Serra Public Affairs, a communications firm representing CMP. Varipatis said the power line will definitely reduce Maine’s carbon footprint, citing the State of Maine Public Utilities Commission report from March, which analyzed the environmental impact of the proposed corridor.

The state-commissioned report says that the power line will reduce New England’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 3 to 3.6 metric tons per year, the equivalent of removing about 700,000 cars from the road. The company noted that the new line will deliver power to New England without redirecting energy from existing markets or increasing emissions elsewhere.

Central Maine Power also dismissed allegations that the planned 53-mile line cuts through undeveloped forests. Varipatis said the project’s engineers and developers ensured the corridor meets or exceeds environmental regulations in addition to minimizing its impact on the surrounding ecosystems. He added that project will weave through forest used by the Maine timber industry for decades — not through forests that are “pristine and untouched.”

“Another major benefit is that Mainers will be breathing cleaner air,” said Varipatis. “The benefits of the hydropower being brought in from Quebec will be felt across New England.”

On-Campus Response

Though Yale has made headlines in Maine press for its affiliation with the project, the University has remained mostly silent on the issue — typically, the University does not comment on its investments. Still, it is not the first time Yale has fielded questions on its role in the development of green spaces.

Yale’s involvement in New England power grids precedes the Maine project. In 2017, another proposal called the Northern Pass sought to deliver hydroelectric power to New England through a 192-mile transmission line through New Hampshire. At the time, Wagner Forest Management — which oversees the Yale-controlled Bayroot LLC — leased some of Bayroot’s lands in northern New Hampshire to Eversource, the power company in charge of the project. While the Northern Pass effort came to a halt in 2018 after leaders failed to gain appropriate permits, the months leading up to the shutdown saw heightened awareness on campus.

In May 2017, New Hampshire Coos County commissioner Richard Samson spoke at a campus teach-in about his concerns that the Northern Pass would degrade the forest. Months later in October 2017, Yale students signed an open letter urging the University to withdraw its support for the project.

“What [Yale is] doing to the land up here and the people up here is just ridiculous,” Samson told the News in April 2018. “We’re asking Yale to be a responsible land owner. That’s what they teach and that’s what they preach, but that’s not what they’re doing.”

When asked for Yale’s response to local concerns about the current power line proposal, University spokesperson Karen Peart referred the News to a 2017 press release, in which the University reacted to the initial wave of protests against the Northern Pass. The release stated that Yale does not directly oversee its investments, opting instead to “invest with managers through partnership arrangements that limit the investors’ ability to control decisions from both a legal and best practices perspective.”

Wagner Forest Management — the company maintaining lands owned by Yale-controlled Bayroot — did not possess the legal ability to terminate the lease, according to the 2017 press release. The release also stated that the Yale Investments Office viewed Wagner as a “world-class manager of timberland.”

In an email to the News, Varipatis said that Central Maine Power negotiated with Bayroot to purchase land for its newest project. He added that there was “no reason” to discuss the purchase with University officials.

According to a Sept. 27 press release from the Yale Investments Office or YIO, the University’s endowment totaled $30.3 billion on June 30, 2019. While the majority of the University’s investments are held in asset classes like private and foreign equity, natural resources make up 5.5 percent of the endowment. According to the YIO, most recent endowment update, investing in natural resources — which include oil, gas and agriculture as well as timberland — offers protection against unanticipated inflation and provides the University with “high and visible” cash flow.

But on campus, some are critical of Yale’s hands-off approach. According to Zander De Jesus ’20, co-president of The Yale Student Environmental Coalition, those who make decisions affecting the environment must consider both the people and ecosystems impacted. He added that in a time of climate crisis coupled with accelerating fossil fuel emissions, it is imperative for institutions to weigh the environmental costs and benefits of their policies.

De Jesus also referenced Yale’s mission as a nonprofit institution dedicated to, among other things, improving the world through “outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

De Jesus said, “I think it’s important that we also scrutinize and evaluate whether or not a profit motive is involved in these types of land transfers, and making sure that all costs be considered.”