‘Corridor’ bill draws skepticism

Posted April 01, 2009, at 10:02 p.m.

A proposal to create “energy corridors” along Maine’s interstates and to funnel revenue from those corridors into energy efficiency received mixed reviews Wednesday during a hearing before state lawmakers.

Gov. John Baldacci is pushing a plan for the state to lease the rights of way along interstates to companies looking to build electricity transmission lines and other energy infrastructure from northern Maine to urban areas to the south.

Bangor Hydro is already exploring its options with the state, as is Canada-based Irving Oil.

Money from those leases would then help pay for an ambitious plan to weatherize all Maine homes and half of the state’s businesses by 2030. Co-locating the energy infrastructure as well as communications cables would hypothetically reduce costs and minimize environmental disturbance.

On Wednesday, a legislative committee held a lengthy hearing on a related bill, LD 1201, that would set up a new Efficiency Maine Plus agency to spearhead the weatherization goals. But much of the testimony focused on the proposed energy corridor between New Brunswick and Maine.

More than a dozen Washington County residents made the more than three-hour drive to Augusta to voice their concerns. Underlying many of their comments was the cross-border tension between Maine and Canadian officials over several proposals to build liquefied natural gas terminals in the Calais area.

Canadian authorities have threatened to prevent LNG tankers from sailing through their territorial waters en route to any LNG facilities built on the U.S. side of Passamaquoddy Bay. While Canadian officials have couched their opposition to the projects in safety terms, project supporters accuse New Brunswick officials of trying to squelch any projects that would compete with their region’s growing energy sector.

On Wednesday, a vocal group of Washington County residents said Maine should not allow Irving Oil or other Canadian companies to use state-owned rights of way until Maine gets assurances that LNG tankers will have unimpeded access to the terminal sites.

None of the LNG facilities proposed for Washington County has been approved by state or federal regulators. They have also faced stiff opposition from some residents.

Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner accused Canadian authorities of interfering in LNG projects that would benefit the economically distressed region while fast-tracking their own energy plans.

“We have to use this opportunity now to do everything we can for our constituency,” said Gardner, as heard through online audio from the hearing in Augusta.

Craig Croman of Baileyville said the region is in desperate need of the type of economic development proposed by the LNG facilities. Croman, who worked at Baileyville’s now-shuttered Georgia-Pacific mill and the Domtar Corp. plant slated for indefinite closure, said he worries that allowing Canadian energy to flow freely through Maine would decrease demand for local energy projects.

“Rushing the bill through without considering the ramifications could prove disastrous to Washington County,” Croman said.

But John Kerry, who heads the state’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, sought to assure the lawmakers and the audience that Maine officials would negotiate favorable lease terms from companies. The corridor would not impede LNG or other renewable energy projects under development in the state, he said.

“The governor has made very clear in conversations with the province of New Brunswick and with private entities … that we will do this thoughtfully, methodically and in a deliberate way, and that the citizens of Maine will receive a tangible benefit from it,” Kerry said.

Baldacci unveiled his energy corridor proposal in his State of the State address to the Legislature last month, garnering some of the ideas from discussions with Cianbro Corp. executive Peter Vigue. Legislative leaders on both sides of the political aisle are sponsoring their own bill based on Vigue’s ambitious plan to use energy corridors to transform Maine’s economy and energy infrastructure.

During events with New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham last week, the governor said Maine has an opportunity to become “the driving force in a new energy economy” stretching from New Brunswick to Connecticut.

Baldacci spokesman David Farmer said Wednesday that the governor fully supports moving forward with the regulatory reviews of the Washington County LNG projects, as long as local residents want the facilities.

And the governor brought up Maine’s concerns about the Canadian position on LNG tankers during his meeting with Graham last week, he said. But Farmer said the Baldacci administration does not believe a disagreement over LNG should delay other energy projects that would benefit Maine citizens.

“We don’t want to jeopardize a better energy future for the state needlessly,” he said.

Farmer said the energy corridor would open the door to additional wind energy development in Aroostook and Washington counties and spur the creation of jobs in rural Maine. With strong support for wind energy coming from Washington, now is the time to aggressively pursue the corridor, he said.

A number of environmental and business groups offered partial support for the governor’s bill on Wednesday, saying they embraced the general goals but believe the bill needs work.

Dylan Voorhees with the Natural Resources Council of Maine described the goal of weatherizing all Maine homes by 2030 as lofty but admirable. But he said the state needs to be pragmatic about funding such a program, and he cautioned legislators against pinning their hopes on what he described as “speculative” corridor lease agreements.

“This is a pot of gold that may arrive in three years, or it may be five or 10 years,” Voorhees said. “Or it may be like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

623-0024

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