AUGUSTA – The Legislature voted late Wednesday night to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a sweeping energy bill, but only after yielding to pressure from LePage to give the University of Maine a second chance to bid on an offshore wind-power project.

The Senate voted unanimously to override the veto, following the House’s override vote last week.

Senators voted after LePage delivered a letter to them indicating he would support an override because he had achieved what he wanted, an “equal playing field for our university.”

The Senate vote was a dramatic end for one of the most important bills of the session.

The vote means the state can become a financial player in lining up capacity for natural-gas pipeline expansion projects into New England. Maine electricity users could save an estimated $200 million a year if the region’s power plants have reliable, year-round access to cheap natural gas.

Moreover, the state will now increase funding for energy-efficiency efforts and provide financial assistance to help families switch to more affordable heating systems and save, on average, $1,500 a year.

“It’s really historic,” said Dylan Voorhees, a lobbyist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s good for Maine, the environment and Maine people. It’s going to cut energy costs in Maine by a lot.”

Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said he was pleased that Democrats and Republicans worked together on a political solution.

“It was the old way of doing things,” he said. “We did it together.”

But getting the required two-thirds vote to override in the Senate required some late political maneuvering.

LePage was upset that the bill did not scale back the state’s ambitious wind-power goals.

He also didn’t like the terms of an agreement and the above-market power rate that Statoil, a multinational oil and gas company, won last winter before the Maine Public Utilities Commission, for developing an offshore wind project.

The contract is worth $10 million annually for 20 years.

Statoil, which is largely owned by the Norwegian government, is testing the waters off Boothbay Harbor for a possible commercial-scale, floating wind turbine park called Hywind Maine.

The governor wanted the PUC to make a second round of requests for competitive bids to allow the University of Maine to submit a bid. The university didn’t bid when the PUC sought proposals three years ago.

LePage failed to stop the veto override last week in the House. But he had more leverage in the Senate, where he had enough Republican allies to potentially block an override vote.

In a deal worked out before Wednesday’s vote, Republicans and several Democrats agreed to support a proposal by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, to amend a related but modest bill, L.D. 1472, which makes offshore wind power eligible for loans from the Finance Authority of Maine.

Youngblood’s amendment requires the PUC to issue a second request for proposals, giving the University of Maine a chance to qualify for a contract and compete for a federal grant.

In May off Castine, a team led by the university launched North America’s first floating offshore wind turbine, an experimental turbine one-eighth the size of a full-size turbine.

The language of Youngblood’s amendment was crafted to help the university in a way that doesn’t penalize Statoil, said Tony Buxton, a lobbyist who represents heavy electricity users, primarily paper mills.

But Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said the amendment would be unfair to Statoil, jeopardize the project and send a message to the international business community that Maine’s state government can’t be trusted as a business partner.

“I grew up with an understanding that a deal is a deal, a handshake is a handshake,” he said during the debate. “We shouldn’t be walking away from that.”

The Senate passed the amended bill 22-13 in an initial vote and unanimously in a final vote.

UMaine has until Sept. 1 to submit a proposal, and the PUC would have until the end of the year to review it.

A lobbyist for Statoil observed the debate on Wednesday but declined to comment.

 

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com