In drafting his Jan. 16 OpEd, Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, was apparently more concerned with taking cheap shots at Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland — who has always supported the University of Maine — than addressing the concerns around Maine’s offshore wind project. Absent from his OpEd is any account of the history of events that resulted in energy company Statoil leaving the state, which is the real story.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission requested proposals for an offshore wind project, and in January 2013, it approved a proposal from Statoil and issued a term sheet. Gov. Paul LePage immediately expressed his displeasure with the project (saying the price was too high) and with the PUC vote. He subsequently went about looking for a way to negate the deal with Statoil and sink the project.
This resulted in the governor holding hostage an energy bill in the Legislature, completely unrelated to the wind project, with the demand that the bid process be reopened. Thibodeau is correct that Senate Republicans backed the governor’s play and threatened to sustain his veto of the unrelated energy bill that had enjoyed bipartisan support. This convinced several Democrats (not Alfond) to join in passing a bill to reopen the bid process. This resulted in Statoil withdrawing from the process and the state entirely.
The concern with all this has been far less about which proposal is better and far more about how it was done. A deal — the term sheet — was struck between Statoil and the state of Maine through the PUC process. While the state hadn’t yet signed a contract, it basically reneged on the deal and did not honor its commitment. The state’s action is equivalent to a contractor requesting a bid from subcontractors, saying it would award a contract and then reopening the bid process, while showing the awarded bid specifics to the competition.
An action of this type in the private sector would likely result in a lawsuit. It is certainly not the type of process you would expect to gain the support of officials who claim the state needs to be business friendly. They did this to a major player on the world energy stage, and the entire business world saw what happened. It has been felt that the economic incentive for doing this project is the subsequent investment in our state related to offshore wind. One wonders how that investment will be affected by the treatment of Statoil.
If the original proposal from Statoil was unacceptable, the PUC should have rejected it and then started the process over. Instead they had the makings of a deal and were essentially forced not to honor it by the governor and the Legislature.
If the University of Maine and its team wanted to bid on the project, they should have responded to the original RFP. They did not because they weren’t ready. Instead they got to submit a bid after seeing all the specifics of the competing bid from Statoil. Given that process, who could blame Statoil for leaving?
Many of us feel this project has great potential, and in spite of the troubled process we root for its success. However, given the sequence of events I certainly don’t think Thibodeau has anything to crow about.
Jack Cashman of Brewer is a former chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.