Gov. Paul LePage is considering two members of his staff with deep backgrounds in energy issues as nominees for two of the three seats on the Maine Public Utilities Commission, state and industry officials have told the Portland Press Herald.
Patrick Woodcock, who heads the Republican governor’s energy office, and Carlisle McLean, the governor’s chief legal counsel, are said to be the leading candidates for the posts, which carry six-year terms.
The future direction of the agency is in play because Tom Welch, the current PUC chair, announced early this fall that he would retire at year’s end, two years before his term expires. Also set to open up is the seat held by David Littell, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and whose term expires in March. The third commissioner, Mark Vannoy, was renominated by LePage in 2013.
The pending nominations come at a pivotal time at the PUC, which regulates electricity, telecommunications, gas and water providers in Maine and is now grappling with critical energy issues, including rising electricity costs and limited access to natural gas in Maine. If Woodcock and McLean are nominated and confirmed by the Maine Senate, all three PUC commissioners will be LePage nominees, giving the governor a greater opportunity to accomplish his energy policy objectives, a key priority during his first term and his recent re-election campaign.
The governor’s press office did not respond Wednesday to an email and phone call seeking comment.
Electric rates for home and business customers are set to rise steeply this winter. Early this fall, the PUC warned mid-size businesses served by standard-offer electricity supply that rates could shoot up 130 percent in January.
At the root of the problem is the shortage of natural gas pipeline capacity serving New England gas-fired power plants, which generate half the region’s electricity. So the next commissioners will be under great pressure to do something to temper the increase and set Maine on a path for lower rates.
Welch, who was appointed by LePage in 2011, has been a leading advocate of expanding gas lines. He worked closely with his counterparts in New England to promote a regionwide strategy. Woodcock, meanwhile, has played a complementary role representing LePage, who has made lowering energy costs a signature goal of his administration.
At the same time, the PUC is in the midst of deciding whether Maine utility customers should invest up to $75 million a year to help expand the region’s gas-pipeline capacity, with the promise of lower electric rates in the future. This landmark case is facing stiff opposition from environmental groups, which say too much natural gas would stunt the growth of renewable energy and contribute to climate change.
If Woodcock is nominated and confirmed, it remains to be seen if and how he – like Welch – will straddle a line between being an impartial regulator in Maine and a supporter of expanding natural gas in New England.
McLean, too, could represent a crucial change in direction for the commission. Littell has generally supported renewable energy. In October, he cast the minority vote against a preliminary step toward approving the $75 million ratepayer participation in natural gas expansion. He said the agency should examine more alternatives before going ahead with such a costly proposal.
“There are critical issues being debated and considered regarding Maine’s involvement in natural gas growth, the value of solar power and ongoing long-term power contracts,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “Whoever the nominees are will have a full plate.”
Payne declined to comment specifically on the potential nominees, noting that his trade group, which represents wind power, biomass and other generators, typically meets and questions PUC nominees.
LePage has been a vocal critic of the above-market rate subsidies that underlie wind projects. To the extent that incoming commissioners share and reflect his philosophy, that could make it harder for renewable projects to gain long-term power contracts, which must be approved by the PUC.
Payne said both his group and LePage share the goal of creating more jobs and cutting energy costs.
“We just differ on the path,” he said.
Woodcock became energy director in 2013. A Hampden native, he worked for former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe as senior adviser on energy and environmental issues. Before his time in Washington, D.C., Woodcock advised Maine Senate Republicans on campaign plans and voter analysis. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in government and a minor in economics from Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
McLean became chief legal counsel in 2012. Before that, she practiced environmental, land use and climate strategy law with the Preti Flaherty law firm from 2005 to 2011. Previously, she worked on law and policy issues at the Yale Center for Environmental Policy and the New York State Office of Attorney General, among other places.
McLean earned her juris doctor/master of environmental management degrees from Pace University School of Law and Yale University School of Forestry. She earned her bachelor of science degree from Bates College in Lewiston.
Under various scenarios, either Woodcock or McLean could be nominated to chair the commission. The job historically has been a high-profile position that has attracted national interest, said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, made up of factories and other big electricity users in Maine. That profile will be elevated as power costs rise over the next two years, Buxton said.
“The people on this commission are going to be very visible on the issue of energy costs,” he said.
Nominees must be endorsed by the legislative committee that handles energy and utility matters and confirmed by the Senate. Committee assignments haven’t been made public yet, so it’s not clear who will chair the committee and when a confirmation hearing will take place.
A candidate needs to receive at least seven of the 13 committee votes to win its endorsement. If rejected, the Senate can overturn the denial with a two-thirds majority.