by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
AUGUSTA â A bill that will move Maine toward ending its so-called “oil poverty” was passed into law late Wednesday after the state Senate unanimously rejected Gov. Paul LePage’s veto.
The measure is aimed at expanding New England’s natural gas infrastructure, boosting funding for energy efficiency, directly lowering businesses’s electricity costs and making it more affordable for residents to abandon oil heat.
And while the Senate voted 35-0 to override the veto, another bill that passed early in the night led to LePage’s support of the bill, which he shared in a letter to lawmakers prior to the veto override vote.
That bill, LD 1472, would allow the University of Maine to bid on an offshore wind power demonstration project. LePage had argued that if ratepayers in Maine were going to fund offshore wind development through higher electric rates, then the University of Maine should be allowed to compete.
The measure requires the Maine Public Utilities Commission to have the final say on which contracts are awarded, but it gives the university a foot in the door and the opportunity to seek federal funding for offshore wind development, supporters of the second bill said.
LePage wrote that the second bill “would accomplish what the chairs and I agreed upon: allowing an equal playing field for our university to compete for offshore wind development.”
Lawmakers who supported the energy bill said it means the beginning of the end to Maine’s deep dependence on heating oil and moves to eliminate the state’s so-called “oil poverty.”
“Maine is showing a real leadership role in New England,” Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said. He praised LePage’s efforts to gain a foothold for the University of Maine, which for more than a decade has been working on composite technologies related to offshore wind.
“This is a historic moment in the future of Maine that took a real bipartisan team effort from the sponsor of the bill to the governor’s office to the committee,” said Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, House chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. LePage first vetoed the bill June 19 just minutes before a midnight deadline to act on it. The House, which has overridden several of LePage’s vetoes this legislative session, took up the veto within an hour and overrode it in a 121-11 vote.
The energy bill is the product of months of work over the past few months by the Legislature’s Energy Committee, which assembled elements from more than 12 pieces of legislation into a comprehensive bill that contained some policies favored by Republicans and others by Democrats. Some of the elements originated in legislation proposed by LePage.
But LePage objected throughout the process to individual parts of the legislation, including a provision that would allow the Maine Public Utilities Commission, rather than the Legislature, to set the systems benefit charge that’s added to nearly all electric bills to fund conservation and efficiency programs. He pushed lawmakers to add other provisions, such as a slate of changes to Maine’s Wind Energy Act that would erase the state’s wind energy generation goals from state law.
LePage said he wouldn’t support the legislation unless lawmakers passed a law that would have required the PUC to reopen its review process for offshore wind energy projects and consider an offshore wind energy pilot project developed at the University of Maine for support from electric ratepayers.
LePage has strongly opposed a PUC decision made earlier this year that awards ratepayer support to Statoil North America, a Norwegian company, for a pilot offshore wind energy project in which the company would moor four floating turbines in federal waters off the Maine coast.
But Wednesday’s compromise bill was being praised by all sides, including Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s energy office. Woodcock said the lawmakers who worked on the bill, including Fredette, Hobbins and Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, set a tone of focusing on policy and not politics.
Cleveland co-authored the original bill, which among other things will help expand the state’s access to natural gas and increase energy-efficiency programs.
Woodcock said there are still issues in the bill that LePage finds objectionable, but he was willing to compromise to move the state forward.
“We are going to need to build on it,” Woodcock said. “The challenges our state face are enormous when it comes to energy and we are going to have to redouble our efforts to implement it, as a Legislature and as an administration.”
Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a member of the committee, also praised the compromise.
“The cheapest form of energy is the energy never used,” Russell said. “This bill gets us to a place where homeowners and Maine residents are going to see lower electricity rates and more importantly, lower home heating costs.”
She said, “Heat should not be a luxury item.”
She pointed out that Fredette first coined the phrase “oil poverty” because so many Mainers spend large portions of their income on keeping their homes barely warm enough in the winter.
“That’s what this is about,” Russell said. “It’s not about bipartisanship; it’s not about compromise. It’s about people,” Russell said. “The reason we all came together is because this is the biggest issue facing Maine. It is actually a crisis and we have actually dealt with it, or have started to.”
“It is hard to overstate the importance of this bill for increasing energy efficiency and reducing pollution from energy consumption,” said Dylan Vorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It will increase investment in efficiency, take the politics out of decision-making on future efficiency investments and save hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The NRCM had backed the bill and voiced disappointment when LePage first vetoed it.
Matthew Stone of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.