AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has been consistent in his opinion that a Norwegian company that wanted to test new floating turbine wind energy technology off the coast of Maine wasn’t doing enough for the state’s economy and electricity ratepayers, but now that international energy conglomerate Statoil has pulled out, the question becomes whether LePage was right.
His political opponents certainly don’t think so, and they will likely use it against him in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
“He literally turned away hundreds of millions of dollars in economic opportunity and denied jobs to hundreds of Maine people,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland in a written statement on Tuesday. “This should not have happened and could have been avoided, but we have a governor who changed the rules of the game and pulled the welcome mat out from underneath Statoil’s feet.”
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, told the BDN Wednesday that Alfond’s assertion about lost jobs was “ridiculous.”
“Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature together supported LePage’s efforts to support increased competition in wind development, allowing UMaine to participate,” wrote Littlefield in response to emailed questions. “The governor will continue to work with both political parties to find ways to lower the cost of electricity, even if some liberal leaders oppose it.”
Statoil, based in Norway, has energy operations in 36 countries, is a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange and employs 21,000 people. It proposed bringing its Hywind project to Maine, off the coast of Boothbay Harbor, but on Tuesday announced it has scuttled that plan and will pursue building the project in Scotland instead.
Statoil has said that it put the brakes on its Maine plans because of last-minute changes LePage demanded for the state’s energy policy in June. Those changes were contained in LD 1472, which among other things allowed the University of Maine and its Advanced Structures and Composites Center to move forward with an offshore wind demonstration project.
A consortium backed by UMaine, Pittsfield-based construction giant Cianbro and others submitted an application to the Public Utilities Commission in August to build an offshore wind farm. On Oct. 8, the PUC ruled that the consortium must reveal details about its application by month’s end.
“The language of [LD 1472] as adopted is somewhat unclear,” wrote Statoil Vice President Lars Johannes Nordli to the Maine Public Utilities Commission in June. “However, Statoil interprets it to mean that the future of any contract for the Hywind Maine Project is in doubt, and that any final approval of such a contract would not occur by this summer as anticipated.”
LePage said in a written statement Tuesday that he opposed Statoil’s project because it would have required Maine electricity ratepayers to pick up hundreds of millions of dollars of overhead costs.
Reactions to Statoil’s pull-out from Maine covered the gamut from “disastrous” to “smart policy.”
Glen Brand, spokesman for the Sierra Club Maine, called the development “a tremendous blow to the growth of the clean energy economy in Maine.”
“I don’t think you can overstate the damage and the blown opportunity of the governor’s actions to force Statoil out of the Maine,” said Brand. “From a national and international perspective, this project was seen as groundbreaking and really could have put Maine on the forefront of a clean technology economy with good, green jobs.”
Patrick Woodcock, director of LePage’s energy office, said Statoil’s continued presence in Maine may have been in trouble long before LePage stepped in on the energy bill. Woodcock cited a Bloomberg News story from June about Scotland’s offer to heavily subsidize the Hywind project.
“This occurred prior to the enactment of the offshore wind bill,” said Woodcock. “Scotland increasing their subsidies by three-fold is certainly a component that the company has not mentioned publicly, and it is hard not to think contributed to this decision.”
Statoil’s departure will likely be an issue in the 2014 gubernatorial election, as LePage’s chief rivals cite it to chip away at the Republican governor’s self-proclaimed pro-business position.
Independent Eliot Cutler and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, both of whom are opposing LePage in the 2014 gubernatorial election, said the state has missed an opportunity
“The Hywind project represented a major economic investment in our state and would have further solidified Maine as a leader in the renewable energy industry,” said Michaud in a written statement. “Despite this setback, I am confident that the continued success of UMaine’s Aqua Ventus project will allow Maine to create jobs and attract future develop in the offshore wind industry.”
Cutler reacted harshly to LePage’s actions during a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. He said as governor he would have pushed harder for a partnership between UMaine and Statoil.
“The governor has been parochial, insular and ham-handed in his handling of this matter,” said Cutler. “Whatever the short-term effects are, this will come at a very certain long-term cost to the state of Maine.”
James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the Statoil issue could provide potent ammunition to galvanize support among those who already oppose LePage.
“For the most part the people who are most disappointed with Statoil’s decision are people who probably weren’t big supporters of LePage anyhow, so I think most of the effect of this will be to solidify many of the governor’s supporters and opponents,” said Melcher. “It may hurt him if his opponents can use it as a way of saying how well he has helped the ‘business climate’ in the state.”
Boothbay Town Manager James Chaousis said his town is left wondering what could have been if the Hywind Maine project was successful.
“We spent a lot of time cultivating a relationship with Statoil because we knew there might be a potential business alignment between Boothbay-area businesses and Statoil,” he said. “We’re a little disappointed.”