MPBN news story
Spring may have arrived on the calendar but the state’s energy director told a legislative committee that people around Maine are cold and in need of some relief. Patrick Woodcock made the case today for the LePage administration’s plan to boost timber harvesting on public lands and use the revenue to offset heating costs. As Susan Sharon reports, it’s a plan that is coming under fire from environmental groups and Democrats.
The idea is to create an Affordable Heating fund to be administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust. Funding – to the tune of about $1 million a year – would come from “the sale of timber and other things of value” from Maine’s public reserve lands.
Maine Energy Director Patrick Woodcock says the approach is necessary because every year the state depends on the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, to dole out money to keep the most vulnerable Mainers warm, and every year the money falls short.
“Last month, United Way absorbed 1,300 calls in February alone, looking for emergency heating assistance,” he said. “The Aroostook Community Action Program is now directing callers to churches and towns.”
And Woodcock says the callers’ stories have a similar theme: Their LIHEAP benefits have run out and so have their optons for keeping warm. Woodcock cited the case of a woman who contacted him last week.
“She was disabled. She had nowhere to go and had the prospect of zero degree temperatures. At the time she was calling me, her home was 40 degrees,” Woodcock said.
With the average LIHEAP benefit about $500 – not enough to fill an oil tank one time over the long winter – Woodcock says the state’s energy policy, for too long, has been to “just get by.” A bill backed by the LePage administration and supported by the Maine Forest Products Council, Efficiency Maine and others, would provide low-income Mainers with a small rebate to invest in affordable, energy efficient, heating systems.
But Tom Abello of the Nature Conservancy says using revenues from timber sales on public lands to provide those rebates is something his organizaton cannot support.
“The Nature Conservancy appreciates and supports the overall theme of the bill – helping Mainers heat their homes and reduce their heating bills by investing in energy efficiency – we think that’s a really important thing for the state to be focused on,” Abello said.
Where the bill loses ground for Abello is in the shift of funding away from the Bureau of Parks and Lands and to a new energy initiative that has nothing to do with the bureau’s current mission.
“And with the bill’s directive to divert between $1 million and $1.25 million annually from the department, from BPL, the bureau’s ability to fulfill its mission would be hamstrung, as it would have trouble meeting the needs of the public and continuing to be an important economic driver for the state of Maine,” Abello said.
Abello says timber harvest funds currently support projects as diverse as road maintenance, mapping, invasive species control and wildlife management.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine objects to the bill for similar reasons. And the group’s North Woods Project Director Cathy Johnson says there is a new program at Efficiency Maine already working to help residents lower heating costs through the purchase of insulation, heat pumps, wood pellet stoves and more.
“That program has sufficient funding for the foreseeable future, assuming that the money is not taken out of the Efficiency Maine Program, and there are some concerns about that,” Johnson said.
In a written statement, House Democratic Leader Seth Berry says, “The governor may not realize it, but the program he wants to create already exists and its funding was put in place over his veto.” Lawmakers overrode that veto last year.