September 22, 2013

AP: Records show Maine gov. tried to jam wind plan

By ALANNA DURKIN, The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — Before its public push to have Maine reconsider wind energy proposals, Gov. Paul LePage's administration worked behind the scenes to explicitly derail Norwegian company Statoil's multimillion-dollar agreement with the state for an offshore wind project, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

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The country's first floating wind turbine, the University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype, generates power off the coast of Castine. Records show Gov. Paul LePage’s administration was working behind the scenes to derail Norwegian company Statoil’s proposal for an offshore wind project that’s projected to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to the state.

AP

The first public word that the administration was trying to reopen bids for the wind energy project came in June. Yet before that, officials went a step further and sought to void Norwegian company's agreement in order to "stop the Statoil project," the governor's top energy official, Patrick Woodcock, wrote in a May email.

Administration officials had said publicly that they wanted to reopen bidding to allow the University of Maine to get into the action. LePage signed legislation to do so in June, prompting Statoil to put the project on hold and consider other locations for its $120 million project.

But, according to a memo Woodcock wrote that month, the administration had initially floated "a much more aggressive effort to explicitly void" Statoil's agreement. In effect, the state would limit the amount that home and business owners would pay for the project to about half of what Statoil had proposed.

The AP reviewed hundreds of emails and documents related to Statoil's project obtained through the Freedom of Access Act from the governor's office, the Public Utilities Commission, and the University of Maine system. The documents provide a glimpse into negotiations over the wind project among administration officials, lawmakers, lawyers and other stakeholders.

The administration's maneuvering to scuttle an agreement between state regulators and Statoil set a dangerous precedent and calls into question the Republican administration's interest in cultivating an offshore wind industry, lawmakers and industry officials have said.

"The message that was sent was that you can't depend on the state of Maine to keep their commitments," said Jack Cashman, former chairman of the utilities commission, of the state's reopening of the bidding process.

Statoil, one of the world's largest energy companies and the first to deploy an offshore wind turbine four years ago, won approval in January to put four wind turbines 12 miles off Boothbay Harbor on floating structures tethered to the seabed. The spinning blades would generate electricity to be sent to Maine homes and businesses.

Maine leads New England in wind power and state officials had expressed hope that Statoil's project would help the state become even more prominent in offshore projects, the prospect of which has been subject to a lot of talk but little action in the U.S.

At the time, renewable energy industry officials praised the project's approval, saying it would create jobs and provide an opportunity for other companies to work with Statoil.

By contrast, LePage opposed the project because utility customers would be on the hook for nearly $200 million in subsidies.

Enter the University of Maine.

The school is competing with Statoil for a $50 million federal energy grant and feared that the awarding the wind project to the Norwegian company might put the university at a disadvantage to win the money.

If UMaine were to bid for and win the wind project, it would be better positioned to get the grant, and LePage's administration could keep the wind project's money in Maine.

In an interview, Woodcock said that initial effort to derail Statoil's proposal also would have provided an opportunity for the university to submit a bid while allowing Statoil to redo its own.

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