AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a comprehensive energy bill late Wednesday night 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 House acted quickly to override the veto, voting 121-11 against the governor shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday morning. The bill now heads to the Senate, where it passed 28-7, which would meet the threshold to override LePage’s veto if all senators stick to their original votes.
The Senate is expected to take up the veto next week.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Energy Committee over the past few months assembled elements from more than 12 pieces of legislation into a comprehensive energy bill that contained some policies favored by Republicans and others by Democrats. Some of the elements originated in legislation proposed by LePage.
But LePage objected throughout the process to individual parts of the legislation, including a provision 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. And he pushed lawmakers to add other provisions, like a slate of changes to Maine’s Wind Energy Act that would erase the state’s wind energy generation goals from state law.
In the end, LePage said he wouldn’t support the legislation unless lawmakers passed legislation that would have required the Public Utilities Commission to reopen its review process for offshore wind energy projects and consider an offshore wind energy pilot project developed at the University of Maine for support from electric ratepayers.
LePage has strongly opposed a PUC decision made earlier this year that awards ratepayer support to Statoil North America, a Norwegian company, for a pilot offshore wind energy project in which the company would moor four floating turbines in federal waters off the Maine coast.
Lawmakers who were instrumental in assembling the bill worked into the night Wednesday trying to develop language the governor found acceptable. Evidently, LePage wasn’t satisfied.
“I gave my word that, if that one additional provision was included, I would let this bill go into law without my signature,” LePage wrote in his veto message. “There are many things we can disagree on, but we should all agree that our flagship university deserves the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”
As the energy bill is currently written, it allows the PUC to consider the University of Maine for ratepayer support if the Statoil project doesn’t secure necessary federal financing, if the company opts out of its Maine project or if the company doesn’t meet construction deadlines. The bill language specifically allows the University of Maine project to be considered for ratepayer support.
Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, Senate chairman of the Energy Committee, called the governor’s veto “catastrophic” and said “we will make every human effort to find a way that we can override the veto.”
Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the chief sponsor of the bill for Republicans and the House Minority leader, called the legislation, “the most significant energy bill in a half century to be passed by the Maine Legislature.”
If Senate lawmakers override LePage’s veto, it would be the first time the chamber has voted to override a LePage veto this legislative session.
And while the governor vetoed the legislation, he is still keenly interested in parts of it, including a section that aims to spur natural gas pipeline construction in New England by allowing the state to buy up to $75 million in new pipeline capacity.
LePage recently met with representatives from Kinder Morgan, a major pipeline developer planning a pipeline expansion in northern Massachusetts, to discuss a potential investment by Maine ratepayers in the new pipeline.
Scott Thistle of the Sun Journal contributed to this report.