What has happened to the Maine Public Utilities Commission? It used to be a respite from politics, relying on a strong staff, expert opinion and transparent analysis to guide Maine’s energy policy. But recent decisions show that our current PUC has little regard for its staff or the opinions of the expert consultants it has hired. Instead, it’s become a mouthpiece for Gov. LePage.
There is no clearer example of this than the PUC’s recent decision to approve a proposal that will allow multinational gas companies to foist the cost of new natural gas infrastructure onto the electric bills of all Mainers, contrary to the recommendation of its own staff – and the experts on which it spent thousands of dollars.
As PUC staff made clear, the costs of this decision far outweigh any of the natural gas industry’s promised benefits.
Pipeline constraints in New England happen only during peak hours – when gas demand for heating and electricity coincide – spread across a small portion of the winter. The natural gas industry has convinced our governor and the PUC that if we flood the region with natural gas, we’ll have lower electricity prices. This conviction is based not only on speculation but also on a refusal to ignore the facts and shift the burden of a $75 million-per-year bet onto the backs of you, me and every other electricity customer in the state of Maine for the next 20 years.
Or to make it more specific, each of us will be giving $7.69 a month, or about $90 a year, to the natural gas companies and their army of lobbyists and lawyers to build a pipeline that will provide profits only to them. And on top of that, as predicted by the PUC staff and the commission’s own experts, the deal itself will have costs that outweigh the benefits by at least $5 million a year, to be borne by – you guessed it – you, me and our neighbors.
Apparently, our governor, so opposed to subsidies as a matter of principle, has no problem with this subsidy for natural gas. His issue is only with subsidies for those forms of energy and conservation that are proven to save Mainers money and keep rates down – namely, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Again, rejecting the recommendation of its staff and the experts it hired, the PUC has rubberstamped the governor’s position on these issues as well.
What the PUC and fossil fuel partners are all willfully ignoring is that electricity prices are dropping already without taking risks on new consumer-funded gas supplies. The price spikes in the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14 that gas companies have used for fear mongering have proven to be an anomaly. Over the last two winters, the price of electricity in New England has plummeted a total of 82 percent, all without us handing over tens of millions of dollars to build a pipeline.
And market forces and careful energy market rule changes are helping to drive down the price of electricity independent of a publicly funded pipeline. Yet the PUC ignores all this and listens only to the siren call of the natural gas lobby and the snarl of its governor to gamble $1.5 billion of our money on a problem that is already solving itself.
I guess we should no longer be surprised. This is the same PUC that thwarted the plans of Statoil to develop offshore wind in Maine; whose chairman testified before the Legislature that this past year’s solar legislation would cost consumers millions of dollars, despite the PUC’s own study confirming the extensive benefits in solar investment; and that has repeatedly slashed funding for energy efficiency – proven time and again to yield benefits that far exceed costs.
Perhaps it’s the same lack of surprise that comes with each more outrageous statement by our governor or the candidate he has endorsed for president. But we are better than that. The Conservation Law Foundation is working hard to hold the PUC accountable for its failure to protect the interests of Maine residents and businesses. But we can’t do it alone.