PORTLAND – Four gubernatorial candidates outlined their positions on offshore oil drilling, power from Canada, wind farm development and strategies to lower electricity costs during a debate Thursday before a gathering of energy and environmental professionals.

The debate was held at the University of Southern Maine as members of the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine watched and asked questions.

It sharpened the distinctions between the front-runner in polls, Republican Paul LePage, who favors less government involvement and regulation, and Democrat Libby Mitchell, who envisions a stronger role for government to encourage Maine’s transition to a green economy.

It also highlighted specific plans by Eliot Cutler, one of three independent candidates on the ballot, to create a public power authority that would partner with industry to build lower-cost energy projects, and Shawn Moody’s small business, high-efficiency focus.

The other independent candidate on the ballot, Kevin Scott, was unable to attend.

The next governor will lead a state where eight in 10 homes are heated with oil, and where high power costs have long been considered a deterrent to attracting and retaining business.

While he or she won’t be able to change those conditions single-handedly, the next governor will appoint environmental and utility regulators and help set policy directions that will influence the price of energy and the development climate in Maine for years to come.

Questions for the candidates came from Jeff Thaler, an environmental lawyer and the council’s co-chair, who moderated the two-hour event, as well as members of the audience.

Maine’s Legislature has set ambitious goals for wind power development, both inland and offshore. The candidates were asked if they support those goals. Only LePage said he does not, citing concerns for the need for backup generation when the wind isn’t blowing.

Moody said it makes sense to continue such investments. Mitchell, who helped draft the goals as Senate president, agreed. Cutler said he would like to see other ocean resources examined, in addition to wind.

The merits of water power, here and in Canada, were discussed, as was the potential for drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Maine. Some of the responses sounded more symbolic than realistic.

For instance, Moody and LePage expressed the desire to develop and upgrade the state’s small hydroelectric dams. Roughly 18 percent of Maine’s 3,300 megawatts in generation capacity comes from water power. Thaler noted that small hydro plants produce only a fraction of that. LePage, however, said he favors them and added: “We keep taking our dams out.”

LePage’s reference was to the 3.5-megawatt Edwards Dam in Augusta, which was removed in 1999, and the 1.5-megawatt Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow, taken down in 2008. The state approved their removal to improve fish habitat, noting that they produced only about one-thousandth of the state’s demand.

Regarding offshore drilling, Mitchell, Moody and Cutler said they wouldn’t consider it. Cutler called the idea “absolutely nuts.” And Thaler noted that Maine’s state geologist found no potential for oil or gas deposits in state waters. LePage, however, said he would “never say never.”

A discussion of the merits of Hydro Quebec proved to be of more substance, and underscored a clear policy decision for Maine’s next governor.

The giant Canadian utility already has transmission lines into New York and New England. Maine’s last Legislature set up rules for developers that want to build new energy corridors through the state.

If Maine could negotiate low-priced contracts, LePage said, that would be “a no-brainer.” But Mitchell pointed out that Canadian power could undercut Maine’s young renewables industry. It would be shortsighted, she said, to discourage the growth of local energy producers in favor of Hydro Quebec. Cutler took a middle position, saying Maine can’t act as an island that generates all of its own power and should import some power from Canada.

The candidates also had different views on how to structure environmental regulation. In addition to the Department of Environmental Protection, Maine has a citizen board that reviews applications.

Mitchell wants to retain the Board of Environmental Protection. Cutler said the current process needs reform. LePage stood by an earlier statement that he would consider moving the functions of the DEP into the Department of Agriculture. Private owners are better stewards of a resource, he said, using an example of farmers in Aroostook County.

The candidates also were asked if they will support a $9.75 million bond question on the Nov. 2, ballot, which would attract matching federal money for land conservation. Only LePage said he would not.

“I look at bonds as another form of taxation,” he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com