June 24, 2013

Maine Senate must decide crucial energy questions

Analysis: The conflicting interests of users, LePage, companies and others emerge in debate on an omnibus energy bill.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Is it worth risking the health of Maine's paper industry to clarify the state's ocean energy policy?

click image to enlarge

A scale model of the VolturnUS, a floating wind turbine project designed by University of Maine scientists. Is it worth risking hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investment to help the University of Maine? Gov. LePage says yes, and it's a question returning Maine lawmakers must answer.

Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer

Is it worth risking hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investment to help the University of Maine?

Those issues don't seem to be linked, at first, and the questions don't seem to make sense. But they are questions that the Maine Senate may need to answer Wednesday, when lawmakers return to Augusta.

While much of this week's debate will center on the state budget for the next two years, a sweeping energy bill that promises some relief to everyone from factory owners to homeowners also hangs in the balance.

For manufacturers, a provision in the bill could help expand natural-gas pipeline capacity and save factories an estimated $200 million a year.

For Gov. Paul LePage, the bill offers some last-minute leverage to compel the Legislature to revise the state's ambitious wind energy goals, which the governor says contribute to high electricity rates.

Caught in the middle is Statoil USA, the Norwegian energy company that's testing the waters off Boothbay Harbor for a possible commercial-scale, floating wind turbine park called Hywind Maine.

It's trying to blunt an 11th-hour effort by the governor to improve, at Statoil's expense, the prospects of a floating wind turbine project that UMaine launched last month.

The energy bill was vetoed last week by LePage, then immediately revived by a 121-11 override vote in the House. The margin reflected the measure's broad support in the Legislature, and showed that Republicans were willing to ignore LePage's desires on the issue and go along with the Democratic majority.

It would take a two-thirds majority in the Senate to override the veto.

The energy bill's initial passage was hailed by lawmakers as a bipartisan victory, in a session marked by much conflict and tension between the two parties. It promised to lower energy costs for Mainers by helping to expand natural-gas pipelines, increasing funding for energy-efficiency programs and helping residents switch to more affordable heating systems.

Now it's up to the Senate to again consider the merits. This time, it's possible that an amendment will be attached to a related bill, with the aim of helping UMaine. Behind the scenes, politicians are working to craft compromise language for the amendment that would help the university in a way that doesn't penalize Statoil. If the Senate approves the amendment, it will go to the House for a vote.

It's a complicated calculus for manufacturers like Verso Paper, which has mills in Bucksport and Jay and a total of 1,500 workers.

A key provision in the energy bill would let the state become a financial player in lining up capacity for natural-gas pipeline expansion projects. Verso says it spends an extra $22 million a year for natural gas because of limited winter pipeline capacity in New England, so it's eager for the provision to become law. It doesn't understand why LePage is willing to kill the energy bill over a pilot wind power project. It's lobbying senators hard to override the governor's veto.

"We recognize the politics," said Bill Cohen, a Verso spokesman. "But we're reaching out to people to get them to understand how important this bill is for our mills to be able to compete."

The Legislature left Augusta on Thursday, but Cohen said he has been calling key lawmakers at their homes and businesses. He is telling them that Verso doesn't want to get involved in the wind power issue. If the amendment is important to the university, he said, that's fine.

"But please, Legislature, don't hurt us in the process," Cohen said. "That's the message we've repeated over and over."

(Continued on page 2)

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