Gov. Paul LePage testified before a congressional subcommittee Wednesday to support a pair of bills that dovetail with his push to expand natural gas capacity in Maine and fast-tracking the certification of small dams for hydroelectric power.

The two draft proposals before the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power are controversial. Democratic representatives argued that one measure designed to expedite interstate natural gas pipeline capacity was unnecessary and could potentially trample the authority of state and federal environmental agencies involved in permitting the projects.

LePage has frequently championed expanding natural gas capacity, citing the state’s high energy costs and its inability to tap booming domestic natural gas production. On Wednesday, the governor told the subcommittee that the permitting process has not kept pace with the “natural gas production renaissance.” He blamed a bureaucratic federal permitting process and a process stymied by environmental activists whose objective is “simply to block critical energy infrastructure across the country.”

LePage also cited the closure of two paper mills – Verso Paper in Bucksport and Great Northern Paper in East Millinocket – as consequences of what’s regarded as a bottleneck in the Northeastern pipeline network.

“Congress needs to take back our country from the overzealous activists that are taking advantage of the bureaucracy and tying our country up into knots,” he said.

LePage’s remarks were well received by Republican members of the subcommittee, many of whom lamented long wait periods to permit pipeline projects by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. The agency oversees interstate natural gas pipeline projects and coordinates with various state and federal agencies involved in permitting. FERC is not involved in intrastate pipeline projects.

The draft bill that LePage supports would give FERC more authority over those agencies while imposing a strict time line to authorize a project. The legislation is similar to H.R. 1900, The Natural Gas Permitting Act, a bill that the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed largely along party lines in 2013 before stalling in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The bill would have required FERC to approve pipeline applications within 12 months, while also requiring other state and federal permitting agencies to act on any related permits or approvals within 90 days. The approval by the agencies would be automatic if they miss the 90-day deadline.

Democrats on the subcommittee said the provision could usurp the authority of local agencies while possibly inviting lawsuits by groups attempting to block pipeline expansion.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, said the bill seemed to contradict Republicans’ typical position of favoring states’ rights over those of the federal government. He said the proposal would supplant states’ authority in the permitting process.

Nonetheless, LePage joined Republican lawmakers who were critical of the permit process, arguing that it was duplicative and easily exploited by interest groups attempting to block expansion.

In 2013 the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, found that interstate permitting is affected by a variety of factors, including varying state environmental rules and regulations. The GAO study found that the average time from application to certification for pipeline projects approved between 2010 and 2012 was 558 days. The average completion time for projects after application was 225 days. The same study found that 92 percent of natural gas pipeline applications are decided within 12 months.

The Obama administration opposed the 2013 bill, which was heavily lobbied by natural gas and pipeline companies, as well as environmental organizations. According to lobbying disclosure reports, 56 different organizations lobbied H.R. 1900, including Houston-based Spectra Energy Corp.

Spectra Energy is one of three companies that have filed proposals with the Maine Public Utilities Commission asking Maine’s ratepayers to help pay for any gas pipeline expansion project that is designed to increase pipeline capacity. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners and the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System have also submitted proposals. The proposals are under consideration by the PUC, which last year found that expansion would cost ratepayers $75 million.

Spectra Energy Corp. donated $3,000 to LePage’s reelection committee. It also donated $1,500 to his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. The company and its subsidiaries also gave $82,250 to the Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that spent more than $5.2 million to support LePage’s re-election. The company also gave to the Democratic Governors Association, which spent heavily to try to defeat LePage.

LePage’s campaign used the pipeline permitting process as wedge a issue against Michaud during the campaign. The governor noted that Michaud voted against H.R. 1900, while also sending a letter to FERC to urge the agency to fast-track regulatory reviews on pipeline projects.

“It is time to wake up,” LePage said in a news release in September. “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.”

The governor was also critical of Massachusetts, which wanted to study the pipeline project further before approving it.

The draft legislation currently under consideration has already drawn $360,000 in lobbying efforts. One company engaged in the paid advocacy is the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. On Wednesday, Donald F. Santa, the CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association America, was invited by the subcommittee as a witness, along with LePage, FERC and other stakeholders.

Santa told the subcommittee the permitting process for interstate pipelines has become “increasingly protracted and contentious.”

Ann F. Miles, the FERC director of the Office of Energy Projects, told the subcommittee Wednesday that the proposal could have unintended consequences. She said she was concerned that making the process too rigid could limit the agency’s ability to respond to specific cases or changes in the natural gas industry.

The subcommittee also reviewed a proposal that would make it easier for states to authorize permits for small hydropower dams.

A report released in February by LePage’s Energy Office found limited opportunities to expand power generation at existing dams, but suggested the state could encourage hydropower development by tweaking state policies.

It identified 56 megawatts of additional power – beyond the more than 750 megawatts of installed capacity – that might be available by expanding or upgrading facilities that produce power now or by restarting dormant facilities with new technology. But the consultants authoring the report said such expansions are unlikely because of economics and a challenging regulatory environment at the federal and state levels.


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