A pair of sneakers hang from a power line on Boynton Street in Portland on Thursday, Aug. 13.

What’s at stake in Maine’s power struggle over energy

AUGUSTA | The push and pull between environmental groups trying to stave off the effects of global warming and their opponents who say climate change is a myth intensified when President Barack Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan earlier this month. In Maine, it has rekindled disagreements in Augusta …

Published Aug. 19, 2015, at 5:49 a.m.     |    

What’s at stake in Maine’s power struggle over energy

Posted Aug. 19, 2015, at 5:49 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 19, 2015, at 6:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The push and pull between environmental groups trying to stave off the effects of global warming and their opponents who say climate change is a myth intensified when President Barack Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan earlier this month. In Maine, it has rekindled disagreements in Augusta about how energy and environmental policies should or should not intertwine.

On Tuesday morning, Gov. Paul LePage spoke to WVOM radio hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler to lob criticism at the Legislature for what he sees as inaction on some of Maine’s core energy needs, such as opening hydroelectric and natural gas markets.

An hour or so later, the National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Council of Maine hailed a new report, designed to support the Clean Power Plan, that draws links between rising water temperatures and the destruction of natural habitats, wildlife populations and sources of clean water.

The debate over energy policy has been raging for decades but has intensified as Maine has become one of the most oil-dependent states in the country on one hand and the site of an insurgency of renewable energy initiatives such as generating wind and biomass power on the other.

Obama’s plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from energy plants by more than 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, calls on individual states to develop compliance plans by September 2016. Maine has not yet indicated how it will proceed — a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman told the BDN recently that Obama’s proposal is under review — but there’s no question that Obama has already accomplished one thing: putting a new focus on energy policy.

The LePage approach: Lower prices

LePage’s energy goals are predominantly about the price. The governor has said repeatedly that reducing energy prices is key to improving Maine’s economy and in particular, helping the industrial sector. He advocates for pursuing hydropower from Canada and natural gas from the south, but there are problems with both.

Hydropower

Maine has some knocks against it when it comes to purchasing power from hydroelectric dams in Canada. For one, there aren’t enough people here to make Maine a lucrative enough market to justify major infrastructure investments like power lines, especially compared with population centers in other parts of New England.

Another problem that Maine has — and here is where the policy rub exists when it comes to hydropower — a law that limits the size of hydroelectric plants that contribute to the state’s renewable energy portfolio, to no more than 100 megawatts. That essentially eliminates the possibility that Maine could land a long-term contract for Canadian hydropower (aside from the unlikely prospect of outbidding more populous states) because the generation facilities in question are too big.

Lawmakers have argued that lifting the cap could price other renewable energy sources that are important to Maine’s economy — such as wind and biomass — out of the market and waste or threaten what have been major past and future infrastructure investments.

LePage said Tuesday morning on WVOM that the Legislature is ignoring the value of lifting the cap.

“Many of them will ignore it until the last company [in Maine] turns the lights off,” LePage said.

Natural gas

LePage has long wanted to pipe natural gas from sources in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to Maine but again, there are forces at work that are out of the state’s control because of its diminutive buying power compared to states like Massachusetts and Connecticut. For that reason, LePage is hopeful that Maine will join a regional effort to bring natural gas at least to electricity generators in other states, which could help stabilize electricity prices that hammer the manufacturing industry in the winter months.

Environmental approach: Lower impact

Environmentalists say investing in renewable energy sources such as wind and biomass now will pay huge dividends in the long run.

What would the impact on Maine’s economy be if there were no more brook trout in its streams or ducks over its waters? What would a steep decline in lobsters mean for the fishing industry?

It would fundamentally change Maine’s identity as a state that depends on its natural resources, according to Nick Bennett, a scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“Unfortunately, there’s a strong denier camp that is a powerful force in Congress,” said Bennett. “Our creatures who live in and around the water are telling us that things are changing and we need to listen to them.“

Climate change

The National Wildlife Foundation report, Wildlife in Hot Water, finds that rising water temperatures around the globe are leading to earlier and more rapid snowmelt, fewer and more intense rainstorms and more extreme droughts and floods. Those factors can lead to major shifts in everything from waterfowl migration routes to reproductive patterns.

Maine, because of its years of participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, is seen as ahead of most other states when it comes to limiting carbon emissions, so according to Bennett, it’s not Maine that is the problem.

“[Obama’s Clean Power Plan] has to make a big impact on the state upwind of us or we’re all in big trouble,” said Bennett. “We’re just not doing enough to address our emissions and that’s true around the world.”

The initiative faces a tough battle, both in Congress and with compliance at the state level. Fifteen states have already filed for a stay on the power plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC Circuit.

That’s not good news, according to Cathy L. Ramsdell, executive director of Friends of Casco Bay.

“Our waters are warming and our chemistry is changing, and we know this from 24 years of collecting data with our community,” Ramsdell said. “These shifts are happening faster than anyone could have predicted.”

High stakes

Obama and his Clean Power Plan supporters argue that the U.S. has already waited too long to act to limit the damage of human-induced climate change. LePage sees reducing energy prices as crucial to preserving or growing what’s left of Maine’s economy.

For both, it’s a question of survival. And that basic philosophical divide means Mainers should not expect accord soon on the power struggle over power.

 

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