Energy: Promise, Pitfalls

Posted May 22, 2009, at 6:01 p.m.

Judicious and quick don’t often go together, especially in state government. But Maine needs to be both as it considers its energy future. Other regions in the United States and Canada are working to develop alternative energy and get it to where the people are — primarily along the East Coast — so Maine must move quickly. That does not negate the need for careful review, and perhaps revision, of existing rules and standards to ensure that Maine gets the maximum benefits from such development.

Earlier this year, Gov. John Baldacci proposed leasing state rights-of-way, such as those along state highways, to private businesses as corridors for natural gas, electricity, data transmission or oil. Irving Oil Ltd., which is headquartered in New Brunswick, wants such a corridor to move electricity, natural gas and perhaps oil to Boston. Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., is exploring building an underground transmission line to the Boston area along the interstate and other state roads.

At the same time, billions of dollars worth of energy generation, including wind and tidal power, have been proposed by private companies in Maine. An efficient way to get such power to southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic, where it is most in demand, is needed for any of these projects to move forward.

As part of a larger energy bill, lawmakers are considering a moratorium on permits for energy corridors longer than 75 miles while a commission studies how Maine can best benefit from them. The concept behind this move is sound, but the idea of a moratorium can cause business interests to re-consider their investments. The trick for members of the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Energy Future then is to ensure Maine does its homework while letting projects — most of which won’t be built for years, if at all — move forward through the planning process.

It doesn’t need to start from scratch. The governor’s office already has a list of what Maine should get in exchange for leases, including long-term contracts that guarantee lower rates for Maine customers, guaranteed access to transmission lines so Maine’s growing alternative energy industry can sell power to southern New England. He also wants Maine firms to do as much of the work as possible and to have spurs along the corridors so businesses and industrial parks can be built where high energy-use firms can take advantage of lower-cost power.

Complicating this work are the major corporate interests arrayed behind the state’s various energy proposals. A group called Maine Jobs First, which primarily consists of liquefied natural gas and paper company interests, has pushed to slow down energy corridors until Canada drops its objections to LNG development in Washington County. Irving, which wants a corridor through Maine, is building its own LNG facility in Saint John and is believed to be pushing the Canadian opposition.

However, suggesting that LNG will become a reality in Washington County if Canadian opposition is dropped is as far from certain — as is saying that if Maine puts up roadblocks to an energy corridor, Irving or another company will build one elsewhere.

A careful and timely review can be done without needlessly slowing down energy development in the region.

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