AUGUSTA — A legislative panel unanimously endorsed Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee to serve on the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Thursday, all but clearing the way for her confirmation.

Lawmakers on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted 11-0 in favor of Carlisle McLean, who has been LePage’s chief legal counsel since 2013. If confirmed by the full Senate, she’ll serve a four-year term, filling the open seat left by former Chairman Tom Welch, who retired in December before his term was up.

No one spoke in opposition at the committee hearing. McLean received praise from business interests, ranging from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce to paper mill representatives, as well as the Maine Renewable Energy Association. Notable by their absence were environmental groups and clean-energy advocates, who typically voice their concerns about PUC matters.

McLean’s appointment to the three-member commission is seen as important to the governor’s energy policy agenda.

The PUC plays a key role in energy matters, notably electric rates, which LePage has assailed as too high to attract and keep manufacturers. Despite the fact that he appointed two of the three commissioners during his first term, LePage has criticized the PUC for not doing more to make energy affordable for all Mainers. He has indicated that the agency has favored “rich, subsidized investors and environmentalists,” a swipe at the energy contracts and tax policies meant to encourage wind and other renewable energy development.

After the vote, McLean said that she heard a resounding message that Mainers expect her to deliver for the Maine economy. “That will be my central focus,” she told the Portland Press Herald.

McLean will join the commission at a critical time.

This winter, many business customers have been socked by rapidly-rising electric rates. A company representative who testified from Huhtamaki, the paper-products maker in Waterville, noted how his mill was forced to cut back operations for 20 days last winter, affecting 540 workers.

High electric rates also seemed to be in store for smaller businesses and homeowners this spring. But they’ll get a temporary reprieve, thanks to the collapse of crude oil prices, which has unexpectedly helped bring down the price of electricity generation in New England.

That will give McLean and the two other commissioners, Chairman Mark Vannoy and David Littell, some breathing room. But the bargain rates for the standard-offer electricity supply that the PUC approved this month will last only through December, and it’s unclear if prices will begin to rise again next winter.

The lucky break with oil does nothing to address a root problem behind high electric rates – the shortage of natural gas pipeline capacity serving New England’s gas-fired power plants, which generate half the region’s electricity.

LePage is an outspoken supporter of expanding pipelines, and a case now before the PUC seeks to charge ratepayers up to $75 million a year to increase capacity. How the case is decided will be an early test of how closely the commission – with Vannoy and now McLean seated – conforms to the governor’s energy priorities.

Littell, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, has generally taken an opposing view of large-scale pipeline expansion. His term expires in March, and Patrick Woodcock, the governor’s energy director, is considered a leading candidate to replace Littell. That would give LePage appointees all three seats on the PUC.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

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[email protected] Turkel