May 2, 2010

Candidates seek to lead on state's energy front

The challenge: Maine's next governor must deal with energy independence in a changing political environment.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Two years ago this summer, heating oil prices in Maine hit $5 a gallon. State government planned to open emergency shelters to keep residents from freezing in their homes by winter, but the global financial collapse averted the crisis.

That close call will serve as a stark reminder for the next governor of just how vulnerable Maine is to volatile, imported energy.

A new governor will lead a state in which 80 percent of homes heat with oil, and nearly all vehicles depend on gasoline. This petroleum dependency drains an estimated $5 billion a year from the state economy, depending on prices. Add to that the extra costs of living with electric rates well above the national average, in part because power generation relies heavily on natural gas.

Reducing this reliance in the short term, and laying the groundwork for energy independence, has been a priority for Gov. John Baldacci and recent legislatures. Together they have enacted a comprehensive energy plan. They created an independent agency -- Efficiency Maine Trust -- to oversee efficiency and conservation programs. They regulated proposed energy corridors from Canada and set rules to encourage wind power development on land and in the ocean. And they took these steps, generally, with bi-partisan support.

But a new governor may find a changed political environment.

The flood of federal stimulus money that bolstered recent energy investment may be ebbing, as is the sense of urgency that followed the oil-price spike. Growing, instead, is a public distrust of government, and among many rural residents, a resentment of government support for industrial-scale wind power on Maine's ridgetops.

The next governor will either broaden the path blazed by Baldacci and his Democratic allies in the Legislature, or head in a different direction.

John Kerry, Maine's current energy director, says it will be safer politically to support policies that are less expensive today, such as opposing a surcharge on heating oil and natural gas to pay for conservation and efficiency. But Kerry, an architect of the state's comprehensive energy plan, says that in the absence of government money or other factors, customers will likely need to pay a bit more on their energy bills now to wean Maine from oil tomorrow.

"The next governor will have to have the vision and political will to introduce legislation and ideas to fund energy programs," Kerry says. "But when oil and gas are low, there's no compelling public outcry for these programs to go forward."

Kerry's advice may go largely unheeded. Nine of the 11 gubernatorial candidates who will appear on the June 8 primary ballot oppose expanding Maine's systems benefit charge. The fractional surcharge now adds up to roughly $8 a year on household electric bills and is used to help fund conservation and efficiency programs. The vast majority of candidates also oppose extending the surcharge to oil and natural gas heat.

The candidates also were asked specifically how they would pay for their proposals. And they were asked if they supported current policies regarding land-based wind power development.

 

Steve Abbott

Abbott wants Maine to do more to leverage its location and natural resources to become more energy competitive. He wants to expand natural gas availability to encourage more generation, attract business and offer fuel alternatives to industry. He would continue to promote energy efficiency programs.

In general, Abbott favors having market forces pay for these efforts. But he would consider state funding on a program basis, possibly through low- or no-interest loans to spur investment. He opposes expanding the systems benefit charge.

Maine has done a good job regulating wind power, Abbott says, but needs to continue fine-tuning its rules to address the concerns of nearby residents.

(Continued on page 2)

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