WASHINGTON — Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have been actively involved in promoting the University of Maine’s offshore wind turbine project, directly lobbying top energy officials and luring them to the state for personal tours of the research facilities.
Most of Maine’s representatives to Congress have been ardent supporters of both inland and offshore wind.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and her former Republican colleague, Sen. Olympia Snowe, pushed repeatedly for renewal or extension of tax credits sought by the wind power industry. Collins recently introduced a bill to create a new tax credit program tailored to offshore wind projects and, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has helped steer millions of dollars toward UMaine’s research program.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who replaced Snowe in January 2013, was a partner in a company that built wind farms inland in Maine. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Mike Michaud have co-sponsored renewable energy investment bills and backed wind power tax credits. The pair have also lobbied on behalf of the university’s bid to secure up to $47 million to build the first deep-water wind power facility in the U.S.
“The professionals at the Department of Energy who are reviewing this, they are going to make sure that the projects applying for grants meet the criteria they set out,” said Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch. “But if it comes down to a close call where a number of projects meet the criteria or score the same, seeing support from the congressional delegation is important and can have an impact.”
The link between political influence and government spending in Washington is overt in some instances and subtle in others.
Corn-belt lawmakers, for instance, helped funnel about $6 billion a year in federal subsidies to the ethanol industry until 2012, despite long-standing controversy over the fuel program.
It’s no coincidence that lawmakers from major shipbuilding states – such as Maine, Virginia and Mississippi – serve on the committees that help set the Navy’s shipbuilding agenda and then influence where the dollars flow.
Competitive research grants such as those for offshore wind are somewhat different, however.
UMAINE CENTER GETS ATTENTION
The Department of Energy is currently reviewing the six offshore wind power projects competing for three additional grants to be announced later this year. Criteria being considered include development of the technology, economic feasibility, potential to lower overall costs for wind energy, and whether the projects have made progress receiving permits and securing purchase contracts for the electricity that will be generated, according to the department.
Although not a political process, the energy department grant competition has caught the interest of members of Congress from Maine and the other states competing for a deep-water project: Oregon and Washington.
Then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono “truly impressive” as he toured the facility in June 2010 at the request of Collins, who has a close working relationship with center director Habib Dagher.
A year earlier, Chu met in his Washington, D.C., office with Collins, Dagher, Pingree, Michaud, Snowe and then-Gov. John Baldacci as they pressed for a national deep-water wind research center in Orono.
In August 2011, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar toured the Orono facility with Dagher and Collins because his department issues the leases necessary to build offshore wind projects in federal waters.
“Maine isn’t playing around, and Maine isn’t playing around for second place,” Salazar said at the time.
In addition to in-person persuasion, Maine’s delegation members have penned numerous letters to administration officials. On Feb. 21, Collins and King described the project as “a proposal for the nation” in a letter to Chu’s successor, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
“It will create domestic, clean, affordable energy that can be replicated in deep water in various parts of the country,” they wrote. “It is also a regional proposal that will grow and add vitality to the New England economy. We support this proposal wholeheartedly and respectfully request that you give this application every appropriate consideration.”
WEST COAST INFLUENCE
The Oregon and Washington delegations have also tried to bend the ears of energy officials, although to a lesser extent than Maine’s representatives.
In May 2012, seven senators and representatives from the two states sent a letter to Chu touting the Pacific project’s renewable energy contribution and potential to “help pave the path for collaboration with West Coast fishermen.”
Oregon and Washington lawmakers also hold influential positions on energy committees.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, was chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee – giving him direct access to top energy officials – until taking over as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee last month.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee while Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
In February, a coalition of watchdog and government accountability groups wrote an open letter to Congress urging lawmakers to back a bill requiring additional transparency in the federal grant-making process valued at $538 billion in 2012.
“While grants and cooperative agreements fulfill a crucial role in our society, too little is known about where the money goes, how it is awarded, and how to apply,” wrote the coalition, which included groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Kevin Miller can be reached at 317-6256 or at: