UNITY, Maine — Energy and the environment were the focus Monday night when 11 candidates for governor gathered for an issues forum at Unity College’s Centre for the Performing Arts.
In a departure from the format of some recent debates, not every candidate was given the opportunity to answer every question. By targeting their queries toward certain candidates, a panel of questioners produced an event that was not meant to compare the candidates issue by issue. However, the process allowed candidates to explain various initiatives and how they would accomplish them.
All the Democratic candidates participated except for John Richardson, who announced Monday he would close down his campaign after he failed to qualify for funding from the Maine Clean Election Fund. Five of the seven Republican candidates were present — minus Bruce Poliquin and Paul LePage — as well as independents Eliot Cutler and Kevin Scott.
The forum started with a question about how the candidates would ensure wind power projects are accomplished while protecting the abuse or waste of taxpayer dollars. Republican Steve Abbott, independent Cutler and Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell, to whom the first question was posed, all called for transparent bidding and licensing processes. Cutler called for the creation of a public power authority to work as a liaison between government and private industry.
“We have to be very careful how we proceed with wind,” said Cutler. “Lowering the cost of electricity in Maine is our biggest challenge and to do that we need a public power authority.”
On a later question about the creation of a multimoded energy corridor through Maine, Democrat Rosa Scarcelli warned that Maine should pursue wind but should do so carefully.
“I don’t believe we run head-long into wind,” she said. “I am in favor [of the energy corridor] but it is essential that we cut a good deal for the state of Maine.”
Asked how he would deal with anti-development sentiment that has cropped up all over Maine in response to various wind proposals, Republican Peter Mills said that despite those disputes the process that has ushered in wind power regulations — namely a task force created by Gov. John Baldacci two years ago — did a “fairly responsible job.”
“You can’t come up with a blanket answer,” he said. “That streamlined process [for wind] emerged from an extensive stakeholders group, but I’m reluctant to talk about streamlining unless it involves a consensus process.”
Democrat Pat McGowan said he favors the energy corridor, but only if it were built to handle power generators from Maine.
“I think it needs to be built with spurs on it [for Maine generators to hook to],” said McGowan.
Several candidates, asked about their visions for solving Maine’s energy problem, cited buying hydropower from Quebec as a partial solution. However, Republican Steve Abbott cautioned that too much of what seems like a good thing could lead to problems.
“If we outsource all of our energy to Canada, that’s a source for long-term disaster,” he said. “Over time as our ability to generate our own electricity declines, the cost of power from Canada will go up and up and up.”
Some of the candidates were polled on the creation of more hydroelectric dams in Maine. Mills and Democrat Steven Rowe agreed that such a project would never happen in Maine, a state where the emphasis in recent decades has been on removing dams, not building them.
“I don’t believe we’ll see any new hydro dams in the near future,” said Rowe. “I believe that we ought to diversify but I don’t see a future for hydroelectric dams.”
Independent Kevin Scott said hydroelectric generation “has to be a piece” of Maine’s energy strategy.
“I firmly believe we can move forward with innovative, sustainable approaches,” he said.
Asked how he would fund the elimination of dams, Republican Matt Jacobson said he wouldn’t.
“We don’t have enough money to pay for our infrastructure, much less remove our old infrastructure,” he said. “We are right on the brink of not being able to pay for all the things we need to pay for. Every problem gets easier to manage if we grow our economy.”
Republican Bill Beardsley favored the creation of consumer-owned cooperatives to run the dams. “Some of our dams are very worthwhile and we should be keeping them,” he said.
On the question of building a nuclear power plant in Maine, Jacobson said he’d seek them out, Cutler said it’s a decision that lies in federal hands and Mitchell said she opposes nuclear power.
“As governor I would not be seeking or encouraging nuclear power in Maine because no one is talking about what to do with the waste,” she said.
Many of the candidates pointed out that any solutions to Maine’s energy problems face significant barriers, beginning with the attitude coming from the governor’s office. Republican Les Otten said changing that would be his first priority.
“We need to become the state of yes and not no,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to build a strong consensus and say yes.”