With electricity prices expected to climb sharply across New England this winter, Gov. Paul LePage asked federal regulators Monday to address natural gas supply bottlenecks, and he again criticized Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick for not supporting gas pipeline development in that state.

In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, LePage called on the agency to fast-track regulatory reviews on pipeline projects, and to consider building natural gas storage facilities so power plants across the region will have a more stable supply.

But LePage also was criticized by his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who said a federal pipeline bill that the Republican governor supports would make it easier for private pipeline developers to seize land by eminent domain. Critics also noted that LePage was a no-show when the region’s governors met last summer to lay the groundwork for a regional approach to gas pipeline expansion.

The pipeline bill, already passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, would require FERC to rule on natural gas permits within one year. Failure to do so would result in automatic approval.

Michaud and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree voted against it as a standalone bill last December and again on Sept. 18 when it was part of a legislation package. The bill is awaiting action before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Independent Eliot Cutler faulted Michaud for his vote, saying he did not understand the House bill. The independent candidate also said LePage should have sought Michaud’s help in trying to change Patrick’s mind about pipeline expansion in Massachusetts.


New England continues to have the highest electricity prices in the country, except for Alaska and Hawaii. The average price for all consumers – residential, commercial, industrial and transportation – in New England was 15.08 cents per kilowatt hour in July, compared with a national average of 11.01 cents per kilowatt hour. The price in the area of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas was only 9.15 cents.

As of July, Maine had the lowest rates among the six New England states, at 12.22 cents per kilowatt hour. Maine’s rate is up .32 cents since July 2013 and New England’s is up .74 cents.

As happened last winter, limited pipeline capacity to New England is expected to drive up natural gas prices sharply in the region during the cold months, compared with the rest of the country. Because so many power plants use natural gas, the price of electricity is expected to rise as well.

Proposals to expand natural gas lines through northwestern Massachusetts have drawn protests, prompting Patrick to pull his support for the Kinder Morgan Energy Partners project, choosing instead to study the issue further. Relieving the bottleneck and expanding natural gas availability in Maine depends in part on the Massachusetts project.

LePage said in a written statement that FERC should not only fast-track natural gas expansion, but also consider increasing storage capacity in the meantime. FERC should also quickly approve incremental expansions, such as two projects proposed by Spectra Energy to expand existing pipelines.

“It is time to wake up,” LePage said in a news release announcing his letter to FERC. “New England is in an energy crisis now, and we desperately need additional natural gas to power our businesses and keep electric bills affordable in households.


“While prices are spiking, liberals in Massachusetts have opposed natural gas infrastructure, saying they need to study the issue more. That’s unconscionable,” LePage said.

It’s not the first time that LePage and Patrick have been at odds over the project. Patrick traveled to Maine in July in support of Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign and criticized LePage for not attending a meeting with fellow New England governors and Canadian premiers to discuss a regional approach.

Michaud said Monday morning in a letter to LePage that he opposed the House bill to fast-track approvals because of how it would affect private property rights. Any project not reviewed within a year would be automatically approved and companies could begin seizing land through eminent domain, Michaud said.

The Maine Democratic Party seized on LePage’s support for the bill, saying it would allow gas pipelines “to sidestep important environmental safeguards and move more quickly to seize private property.” Democrats raised the specter of the controversial East-West Highway in their news release Monday.

“Gov. LePage needs to tell us what other projects should receive such special treatment and be able to use eminent domain without appropriate review,” said party Chairman Ben Grant.”When it comes to their private property, Mainers can’t afford to wait and see which big business the governor will give their land to.”

LePage said he’s also wary of eminent domain, but he doesn’t want to prematurely block potential natural gas projects.


“Why don’t we start it and see where the problem comes up and then we try to negotiate our way through it,” he said. “I believe there’s always a way when there’s a will.”

Michaud said 90 percent of gas permits are approved in the one-year time frame that H.R. 1900 seeks to establish, after being evaluated in accordance with the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Rivers and Harbors Act and the Endangered Species Acts, among others.

“The permitting process is structured this way for a reason,” Michaud wrote in his letter to LePage. “Matters of public safety, Maine’s environment and private property rights are critically important issues that should be fully and carefully considered, not subject to unnecessary deadlines.”

Michaud said he supports increasing access to natural gas as part of a broader strategy to reduce energy costs in Maine that would include renewable energy such as tidal, solar and offshore wind.

Cutler said at an energy forum that he supports expanding the natural gas pipeline as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy sources. He has proposed a Maine Energy Finance Authority, a way for the state to use low-interest, tax-exempt financing and public-private partnerships to help energy businesses invest in and build needed infrastructure, such as gas pipelines.

Cutler said in an interview that he agrees with LePage on accelerating gas pipeline expansion in Maine, but that the House bill is the wrong vehicle, because it would also give FERC the authority to override decisions by other permitting agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers.

Instead, LePage should have asked Michaud to help convince Gov. Patrick to stop blocking the expansion, he said.

“Massachusetts is the problem here, not FERC,” Cutler said. “They both made mistakes. LePage should have asked Michaud to do that, and Michaud should have understood what is the real problem with this bill.”

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