AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage’s energy director says the governor’s recent promise to fast-track natural gas infrastructure projects and lower energy costs for residents and businesses will mean streamlined state environmental permitting, new programs to help Mainers convert to natural gas and other alternatives to oil heat.

However, the two companies competing to bring natural gas to the Kennebec Valley already have most state approvals they’ll need and cite no problems with Maine’s regulatory process, saying it has worked fine for them.

Even so, company officials said they welcome any help in converting Maine homes, businesses, and government and school buildings to natural gas.

In his State of the State address last week, LePage said Maine’s energy costs are too high, singled out natural gas as an energy alternative that could help lower them, and vowed to take steps to speed and ease the construction of natural gas projects.

He said the average Mainer spends more than $3,000 a year on heating oil and could save $800 a year by switching to natural gas.

“My predecessor fast-tracked permitting of wind projects,” LePage said, referring to former Gov. John Baldacci. “We’re going to do the same for natural gas.”

In an interview, Energy Director Patrick Woodcock said natural gas projects should be encouraged and hastened, primarily by making Department of Environmental Protection permit processes faster and less complicated.

“Any and all natural gas projects have to be streamlined,” Woodcock said.

“One thing we’re looking at is modeling some of the effort on what the Wind Energy Act did on some of the permitting.”

Woodcock said LePage is frustrated that the state hasn’t been able to convert state office buildings in Augusta to natural gas.

He said the buildings use about 220,000 gallons of oil annually.

However, Woodcock said he couldn’t discuss when the state would issue a new request for proposals because of the unresolved legal issues looming over the failed first attempt.

LePage and Woodcock said the administration also is working on a plan to help Mainers convert from oil to other less costly heating fuels, natural gas included.

“One of the barriers, in the past, has been how expensive it is to put in a new (heating) system, whether a wood pellet (stove), a heat pump or natural gas,” Woodcock said.

“We’re looking at assisting with that upfront cost with a rebate program, to help defray the cost to consumers.”

That cost of helping consumers, Woodcock said, could be offset using funding that Maine receives through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a partnership including Maine and eight other northeastern states.

The initiative, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, places caps on carbon dioxide emissions in member states.

Emissions allowances are then auctioned off to businesses, and the states get the proceeds of the auctions.

Since the auctions started in 2008, Maine has received just over $34 million, including $1.2 million in the most recent of the 18 auctions.

Now those funds are allocated to the Efficiency Maine Trust for energy-efficiency programs.

LePage said in a Feb. 7 announcement that he would support proposed reforms to the initiative, but only if Maine alters how it uses its share of auction proceeds.

Rather than using them for energy-efficiency programs, LePage said he will introduce a bill to use the money to reduce electricity rates for businesses and lower heating costs for Maine families, by helping them convert to cheaper heating sources, natural gas included.

Woodcock said increasing energy efficiency is a good goal, but what Mainers need help with most is their heating bills.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

kedwards@centralmaine.com