Senate passes energy bill in 28-7 vote after rejecting LePage-backed amendments

Posted June 06, 2013, at 7:46 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate gave overwhelming support to a comprehensive energy bill Thursday, voting 28-7 in favor of a far-reaching measure aimed at expanding New England ’s natural gas infrastructure, boosting funding for energy efficiency, directly lowering businesses’ electricity costs and making it more affordable for residents to abandon oil heat.

The 28-7 vote means the Senate would have enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage if senators stick with their original votes. The 28-7 vote followed two votes in which Senate Democrats killed proposed amendments supported by LePage.

The bill next returns to the House, where it has already received initial approval.

LePage supports some components of the bill. But his energy director, Patrick Woodcock, said Thursday the governor’s support was largely contingent on including language in the legislation to force the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reconsider a decision it made earlier this year to allow Statoil North America to moor four floating turbines in federal waters off the Maine coast to generate 12 megawatts of energy. Electric ratepayers would provide funding for the project as a result of the PUC decision.

LePage has strongly opposed that decision, singling it out for criticism in his State of the State address in February. An amendment proposed by LePage — presented to the Senate by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer — would have required the Public Utilities Commission to reopen its review process that resulted in the Statoil decision and specifically consider a University of Maine offshore energy project that would result in 170, 6-megawatt turbines being placed in the Gulf of Maine by 2030.

“This amendment does nothing to preclude offshore wind to move forward. It’s just a question of which technology works best for the Maine economy,” Woodcock said. “Let’s allow that competition. If Statoil wins, I think the university would understand that. The university at this point has no ability to even compete.”

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, who was instrumental in crafting the energy bill as Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Energy Committee, said the LePage amendment had an ulterior motive and could result in turning a business piloting new energy technologies away from Maine.

“What it’s asking this Legislature to do is to interfere, interject in an adjudicatory process that has already occurred at the Public Utilities Commission,” Cleveland said. “If we really want to attract industry and business in this state, we have to have consistency. We have to go by the rules. We can’t change them midstream.”

The other amendment killed by Democratic senators was a proposal to strip a provision from the energy bill opposed by many Republicans that would allow the Maine Public Utilities Commission, rather than the Legislature, to set the systems benefit charge that’s added to nearly all electric bills to fund conservation and efficiency programs.

“Shouldn’t we be sure that additional funding increases on the backs of ratepayers should be approved by us?” asked Youngblood.

Cleveland countered that there are enough controls in the bill to ensure the Public Utilities Commission doesn’t levy undue electric charges on ratepayers.

The energy bill is a compromise measure that incorporates elements from 12 different bills.

“None of those bills would have passed individually for various political reasons, and we would have accomplished nothing when we need to do something,” Cleveland said.

“There’s something in there to love by everyone,” said Youngblood, who was also involved in crafting the bill. “There’s something in there to dislike by everyone.”

The bill would allow Maine to buy capacity in new pipelines as a way to spur expansions of a constrained natural gas infrastructure in the region. The intent is to erase the difference between the much higher gas prices paid in New England and the rest of the country.

If the state purchases capacity, it could then enter into energy cost-reduction contracts with natural gas generators by selling capacity in exchange for rates that reduce electricity costs.

“What we get is the ability to wave the flag for new industry to come to Maine,” said Youngblood. “What we hear over and over again is that we can’t get new industries to come to Maine because our energy costs are too high.”

The bill also boosts funding for energy efficiency programs, using funding from carbon emission allowance auctions through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, and $82 million the federal government has paid Maine for failing to remove 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscasset.

The efficiency and conservation programs, which are administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust, would help industrial facilities cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and offer help to homeowners to weatherize their homes. Efficiency Maine, under the bill, would also be charged with administering a program suggested in previous legislation from LePage that offers homeowners rebates to help them convert to more efficient home heating systems.

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