June 18, 2013

LePage threatens veto of wide-ranging energy bill

The governor wants to support a UMaine offshore wind pilot project over that of a Norwegian company, but a sponsor says failure to pass the bill would undermine other energy initiatives as well.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A wide-ranging energy bill that won broad support in the Legislature could be vetoed Wednesday by Gov. Paul LePage if an amendment to help the University of Maine's offshore floating wind project isn't included in the law, the governor's energy director said Tuesday.

click image to enlarge

A scale model of the VolturnUS wind turbine was christened in May. The model will test the device and lead the way to larger and more powerful wind energy generators.

Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer

At issue is the governor's desire to support the university's VolturnUS pilot project over a competing venture being developed by Statoil USA, the Norwegian energy company.

LePage is unhappy with the terms of a contract and the above-market power rate for Statoil that was approved last winter by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The governor wants to create a new process at the PUC by which both projects could be evaluated, to weigh their benefits to ratepayers, according to the energy director, Patrick Woodcock. The idea is to assure that ratepayers are getting the best deal, Woodcock said, before a final contract is signed with Statoil and the PUC this summer.

The energy bill was passed by the Legislature earlier this month by wide margins in both the House and Senate. LePage has until midnight Wednesday to veto the bill or let it become law without his signature. If the governor rejects the bill, it would take a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to override the veto.

One of the bill's co-sponsors said he would be trying hard to find common ground with LePage and avert a veto.  Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, said failure to pass the bill would leave the state unable to negotiate for new natural gas capacity and lower wholesale prices, for instance, a shortcoming that's costing Maine homes and businesses $200 million a year.

"It would be extremely unfortunate and do great economic harm to the state of Maine," Cleveland said.

Responding to the governor's position, Statoil's project manager for Maine said the company had responded in good faith to the state's request for investment to develop offshore wind energy, and based on approvals from the PUC, had made "significant investments" in the project.

"We have been collaborating for more than three years with the University of Maine," said Kristin Aamodt in an email from Norway, "and an R&D program with the university is part of the Hywind Maine project going forward."

Aamodt noted that Statoil had committed to using Maine companies as much as possible to build a commercial-scale wind park.

"We believe this project will be important for establishing an offshore wind industry in Maine," she said.

The bill's initial passage was hailed as a bipartisan victory by lawmakers, in a session marked by much conflict and tension between the two parties. It promised to help lower energy costs for Mainers by expanding natural gas pipelines in the region, increasing funding for energy-efficiency programs and helping residents switch to more-affordable heating systems.

Those goals now may be at risk, as well as the state's ability to attract energy-related business investment, according to Paul Williamson, executive director of the Maine Ocean and Wind Industry Initiative.

Maine passed an Ocean Energy Act with the hope of making the state a center of offshore energy research and development. Statoil responded to a request for proposals and was picked for its Hywind Maine pilot project two years ago by the PUC. It later had its terms approved. UMaine's project wasn't far enough along at the time and didn't submit a proposal, Williamson said.

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