HALLOWELL — Gov. Paul LePage says Maine must reduce energy costs to compete with other states, and his administration will do whatever it can – short of providing direct funding – to encourage the expansion of natural gas.

LePage, speaking Monday to representatives of the wood products industry, pointed to a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline in central Maine, from Richmond to Madison.

It was the first time LePage stated publicly his support for the pipeline project, which is proposed by Portland-based Kennebec Valley Gas Co.

The company is seeking tax breaks from communities and contracts from anchor commercial tenants to finance the project.

“The Richmond-to-Madison pipeline is hot on the table,” LePage told about 100 people at the Maine Wood Products Association’s annual meeting in Hallowell.

LePage said his administration would help find potential large users for the natural gas pipeline, including state government.

He said the state “is not in a position where it can help fund a pipeline,” but officials would work to help make sure the approval process for pipeline projects moves as smoothly and quickly as possible.

“There is a lot we’re doing to try to encourage some natural gas here,” LePage said. “Currently we’re talking to many companies to see who will take the challenge.”

The governor said Maine’s energy costs are the 12th-highest in the nation – although the costs are the lowest in New England – and 42 percent higher than the national average.

LePage said a visiting official from the Japanese automotive industry, who was scouting recently for potential sites for parts manufacturing, told him: “Lower your energy costs and we’d love to come here. Your energy costs are unaffordable; it’s not competitive.”

LePage was a founding board member of the association, a nonprofit with about 100 members that was established in 1995 to assist in the manufacturing and marketing of wood products such as furniture, flooring and wooden toys.

During his speech Monday, LePage assessed his first year in office, saying, “You don’t get everything you want, but I think we had a pretty good year. We got quite a few things done.”

Among them, he said, was an effort to reduce “red tape” in state regulations.

However, it’s not necessarily the regulations themselves that are the problem, LePage said, citing regulators who, he said, have not been friendly to business.

“It’s not the regulations that are onerous; it’s the attitude,” he said. “While it’s a monster of a job to get attitudes changed, that’s how we get to the end game.”

LePage said his main priorities this year will be three areas: the economy, energy and education.

The governor said Maine and other states made a mistake in recent years in thinking that every student should go to college.

He said not every student wants to, or should, earn a four-year degree.

LePage said the state also erred in “taking vocational education and throwing it in the back of the room.”

He said Maine must have strong vocational and technical education offerings so that all students have opportunities to learn.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: [email protected]