If the state could do one thing to improve the competitiveness of Maine industry while cutting the cost of health care and government services and putting money in the pockets of people who would spend it in local communities, reducing the cost of energy would be it.

Maine mills and factories compete against companies in states with federally subsidized dams that produce plentiful cheap power. Large hospitals use money collected from health insurance payees, both public and private, to heat with oil.

So, for the most part, do Maine residents, who send billions out of the state every winter, paying an ever-increasing price for a commodity that is subject to the whims of an international market. Maine is one of the most oil-dependent states in the country, and every time the price of oil climbs, we have less to spend.

Maine can reduce its dependence on oil and cut its energy bill by extending natural gas pipelines to the customers who need it.

It will take a collaborative public-private effort to make it happen.

Gov. LePage’s special working group has identified loan guarantees as a way that the state could help finance pipeline expansions. Projects that would connect large power users to the gas pipeline system would run lines that homeowners and small businesses could tap into, lowering their energy costs.

These projects can have a very quick payoff. Last spring, the Finance Authority of Maine backed a $5.2 million bank loan to convert a pulp mill in Baileyville from oil to gas. The project is expected to pay for itself in a year and is expected to eliminate the need for 10.3 million gallons of oil.

A proposed 80-mile pipeline along the Kennebec River would connect three paper mills and create access for state buildings in Augusta and the site of a future regional hospital. State backing could put as much as $80 million at risk, but it could create enough economic activity to make the risk worth taking.

The state should throw its support into this effort, and after it is complete, give similar backing to individuals who want to lower their energy costs by connecting to the new gas lines made possible with government support. Overdependence on oil has been a drag on Maine’s economy for too long.