Patrick Woodcock is stepping down as Gov. Paul LePage’s energy director, citing a “broken” process in which lobbyists have too much influence in crafting energy policy as a contributing factor in his decision.
In an interview with the Portland Press Herald, Woodcock said he enjoys the job he has held since 2013, but he expressed frustration with the power of lobbyists to define and advance energy policy in a citizen Legislature, where the turnover makes it hard for lawmakers to get up to speed on complex details.
“Augusta is really broken,” he said. “Energy policy is really complicated and there’s an over-reliance on special interests.”
Woodcock, who will leave his position in the Governor’s Energy Office Dec. 9, exits at a time when market forces, more than government action, have given some relief to residents and business owners who burn oil, the price of which is depressed worldwide, or use a lot of electricity, the cost of which is linked to wholesale natural gas prices. But those markets are volatile, and whoever replaces Woodcock will face challenges in helping to insulate Mainers from future rate shocks.
Woodcock was highly respected in state energy circles. In contrast to the combative style of his boss, Woodcock was a calm voice who tried to build consensus to advance LePage’s priorities.
“Patrick Woodcock has done an outstanding job, not just for the state of Maine, but also for the New England region,” LePage said in a written statement. “He has been at the forefront of discussions on how to lower energy costs for the Maine people and the people of New England. His expertise and his ability to communicate energy policy is unmatched.”
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the incoming Senate minority leader, said he understands Woodcock’s frustration. Although he didn’t know the specifics that led to Woodcock’s comments, Jackson said lawmakers need to exercise care around the issue of lobbyists.
“Some of these people are good people, but they are getting paid to push a position and you have to keep mindful of that all the time,” Jackson said.
He said lobbyists and bureaucrats within the government are often the people who have the most expertise in certain policy areas because term limits keep lawmakers from staying in government long enough to develop a comparable level of expertise. In complicated policy areas, like energy and utility regulation, that lack of institutional wisdom on a committee can be manipulated, he said.
“People think term limits are a good thing,” Jackson said. “But in this regard they are not because they have given the power to the lobby and the bureaucrats.”
LOSS OF EXPERTISE, DEAL BROKER
Across the aisle, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he hadn’t spoken with Woodcock since the announcement so he could not speak specifically about concerns over undue influence.
“The reality is, energy policy is complicated and I know finding consensus around these issues is a daunting task,” Thibodeau said in a prepared statement.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said the governor is committed to lowering energy costs, and that includes standing up to special interest groups.
“It’s no secret that lobbyists run the halls of the State House and have massive influence on legislators,” she said in a written response to the Press Herald. “If you follow the money trail a lobbyist will not be far behind it. The problem with them is that they do not advocate on behalf of the average Mainer. This election ought to be a wake-up call for politicians across the country and in Maine that the average American is fed up with corrupt politics and inside influencers.”
Both party leaders said Woodcock’s intelligence and ability to broker compromises will be missed.
Woodcock, who is 34 and lives in Portland, wants to keep working on energy issues, but said he didn’t have another job lined up. He previously had served as an energy and environment adviser in Washington, D.C., to former Sen. Olympia Snowe.
His pending departure was met with disappointment by some key players in energy circles. Some speculated that Woodcock’s exit would make it more challenging for the governor to enact energy legislation during the final two years of his term.
“It’s a huge, huge loss,” said Sen. David Woodsome, R-Sanford. “I trusted Patrick. He worked very hard to bring people together.”
Woodsome, who is expected to be renamed co-chair of the legislative committee that handles energy and utility matters, said Woodcock’s replacement would be crucial for LePage.
“If he appoints someone who is just a foot soldier, he’s probably going to have a hard time dealing with the Legislature,” Woodsome said.
Tony Buxton, who represents industrial energy users and has been a leading lobbyist for expanding natural gas pipeline capacity, said Woodcock was a strong advocate for Maine in the regional effort to lower electricity costs. Buxton was disappointed to see Woodcock go, but understood the daily challenges he faced.
“He had one of the toughest jobs in state government,” Buxton said. “He was heroic to have lasted as long as he did.”
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said Woodcock had expressed to him his displeasure with divisive politics in Washington, and had hoped to find a more cooperative climate in Maine.
“His personal political views were not always aligned with the positions he had to take over the past couple of years,” Payne said. “At the end of the day, Patrick’s job was to move the ball for the governor.”
Woodcock said he was most proud of his efforts, through Efficiency Maine Trust, to steer funding toward programs that help Mainers lower their home heating costs. He noted the proliferation of air-source heat pumps, which qualify for rebates at Efficiency Maine and have been installed in thousands of homes and businesses. He called the switch to heat pumps “transformative.”
But Woodcock lamented that the state has so far been unable to move ahead with regional efforts to expand natural gas pipelines, a priority for LePage.
It’s unknown whether the office’s deputy director, Angela Monroe, would be picked by LePage to head the office. Monroe was a former staff member of the Maine Public Utilities Commission who filled the deputy slot this year.
Woodcock held one of the highest-paid positions in LePage’s administration, earning a salary of $110,000 in 2015, according to records available on the state’s transparency website, Maine Open Checkbook.
A spokesman for LePage said more information on a replacement would be provided before the new Legislature convenes in January.
In a related matter, James LaBrecque, an electrical engineer from Bangor who acts as an informal technical adviser on energy for LePage, will represent the administration Thursday at the annual E2Tech Expo in Portland. A meeting of business and policy representatives in the energy and environmental sectors, it features a look ahead at the industry after the election. LaBrecque, who is a strong advocate of heat pumps and a critic of solar energy, will speak on a panel titled “State of the Energy Sector – State Perspective.”
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2016 to include a response from the office of Gov. Paul LePage.