FALMOUTH — While Mainers brace for steep increases in electricity rates this winter, a decision that might bring eventual relief is bogged down for procedural and political reasons at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. And top state energy officials say it’s unlikely that any progress will be made before year’s end.

That’s bad news for ratepayers, including homeowners and many businesses. Earlier this week, state agencies warned that some midsized businesses will see the energy charge on their electricity bills spike by 130 percent from last month to January, largely because of problems getting an adequate supply of natural gas to power plants.

That warning, coupled with the pending closure of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport, where energy costs were a critical issue, have focused attention on the role of state government in trying to ease the pain.

One long-term strategy is in play at the PUC.

The agency is deciding a landmark case on whether electricity customers should be charged up to $75 million a year to help subsidize the cost of expanding natural gas pipelines in New England. The expansion could help ease a bottleneck in the supply system on cold days, bringing more fuel to gas-fired power plants, which generate half the region’s electricity.

Supporters of this strategy have been pressing the PUC to vote on the matter this fall and choose among the three pipeline expansion proposals filed in the case. Time matters, because it can take two or three years to win permit approvals and start construction.

But time is running out for action this year. Last week, the PUC’s staff offered its opinion that while the overall benefits of the subsidy are unlikely to outweigh the financial risk for consumers, the three commissioners should approve the concept. The staff and an expert consultant then would study each plan to see if the benefits could make the investment worthwhile.

An initial vote on moving forward has yet to be scheduled. And after that, it will take time to review each project proposal, state officials say. That makes it highly unlikely that a final vote could be taken before the end of December, when the chairman of the commission, Tom Welch, will retire. Welch has been a key advocate of natural gas expansion in New England, and an architect of a now-stalled proposal for ratepayers in the six states to help underwrite the investment.

“I don’t see any way this gets resolved before Tom leaves,” said Tim Schneider, the state’s public advocate.

The future of natural gas in Maine was the focus of a daylong seminar in Falmouth on Thursday. Sponsored by the Verrill Dana and Pierce Atwood law firms, the seminar had been planned for months, but recent news events added a sense of urgency.

The law that kicked off the PUC’s review last summer was accompanied by pleas from industry leaders for a quick review. The delay is deeply frustrating to businesses that use a lot of energy, which has been blamed as one factor leading to the unexpected Verso shutdown in Bucksport.

“I’m worried that this commission has decided not to decide the case, although I hope I’m wrong,” said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group.

Buxton, who also represents the Tennessee Gas Pipeline on one of the project proposals before the PUC, said the electric rate hikes and Verso’s announcement underscore the importance of prompt action.

“Unless we send a signal to businesses that there is an end to high energy costs, people are going to make decisions to close, or move, or not come to Maine,” he said.

During the seminar, a PUC staff attorney working on the case, Carol MacLennan, noted that some parties in the case asked the agency to compress a review into a two-month period. Others, including one of the three commissioners, argued that it should take a year or more to make an unprecedented decision that involves hundreds of millions of public dollars.

A spokesman for the PUC declined to speculate on how long the process would take, or if it could wrap up before the new year. Harry Lanphear said comments on the staff recommendations are due Wednesday. After that, the commissioners will assess how to move ahead with an initial vote and study of specific proposals, he said.

“It’s just premature to say any more at this point,” he said. “It’s a very complicated case.”

Meanwhile, the election in November will decide whether Gov. Paul LePage serves a second term, or if the Republcan is replaced by Democrat Mike Michaud or independent Eliot Cutler. PUC commissioners are appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature, so filling the chairman’s seat on the commission is likely stalled until at least January.

“It shows how important replacing Tom Welch will be,” said Patrick Woodcock, who heads the governor’s energy office. “He or she will be walking into a major issue immediately.”

Woodcock speculated that the study process could take months, and noted that the term of David Littell, one of the three commissioners, ends in March. Littell, a holdover appointee by former Gov. John Baldacci, has expressed caution about moving too fast on a decision, with so much public money at stake.

The third commissioner, Mark Vannoy, was appointed by LePage.

No one can know for sure how each commissioner would vote, but both Woodcock and Schneider observed that based on previous PUC decisions Vannoy and Littell come from different ideological positions. That presents the possibility that Vannoy could vote to approve a specific project and Littell could vote against it, they said.

“The next commissioner that the next governor appoints will be the deciding vote,” Schneider said.

Major gas pipeline expansions are opposed by environmental groups, which want to reduce the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change. They argue that New England would be better off in the long run by maximizing efficiency and by diversifying its energy resources with wind, solar and other renewables. It doesn’t make sense to spend billions of dollars to fix a problem that only exists on cold winter days, they say.

As the debate goes on, experts caution that even a quick decision at the PUC won’t lower electric rates any time soon.

“What we see this winter will happen next winter, and the winter after that,” Schneider said.

With no immediate pipeline solutions in sight, regional grid operators are making plans this winter to use more oil-fired generation to keep the lights on. Woodcock and Schneider are urging Mainers to cut electric use through conservation and efficiency, and take advantage of rebates and programs run by Efficiency Maine.

“I don’t want the whole focus to be on pipeline capacity,” Woodcock said. “That’s important, but it’s not the only energy strategy we can use.”