AUGUSTA, Maine — A $13.5 million bailout of Maine’s struggling biomass industry passed the Legislature on Friday, with the risk of more than 1,000 jobs overruling concerns that the package constituted “corporate welfare.”
It’s a bid to keep Maine’s four biomass power plants — owned by ReEnergy Holdings in Ashland, Fort Fairfield, Stratton and Livermore Falls — running after two others closed this year in West Enfield and Jonesboro, citing low energy prices.
If the industry collapsed, the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine has said 400 jobs at existing plants and another 900 associated jobs would be lost, saying the industry is in a “crisis.”
The bill aims to boost biomass by having the Maine Public Utilities Commission enter into contracts for 80 megawatts of energy for two years at above-market prices. However, ReEnergy is owned by an investment firm holding $3 3 billion in assets and at least one of its plants may close even if the bill passes, according to the Portland Press Herald.
The emergency bill easily passed the Legislature on Friday — with a 25-9 vote in the Senate and a 104-40 vote in the House of Representatives in initial votes.
Support and opposition fell across party lines, but it faced more votes as of Friday evening before going to Gov. Paul LePage. His energy director, Patrick Woodcock, said the governor likely would support the bill.
Debate was focused on the conflict between preserving rural jobs and subsidizing an imperiled industry, with Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, saying while he didn’t know if the bill was “the cure, I know it gives two years of life” to the industry.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, couched it as a bill crucial to Aroostook County. He said except for two, every town there lost population in the last Census, which he blamed on the loss of jobs that were, in part, a result of policy decisions made by the Legislature.
“I hope today you don’t put another nail in the coffin,” Martin said.
But Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, called the bill “corporate welfare.” Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, agreed, saying she’d rather give the money behind the bill directly to workers affected by biomass layoffs than subsidize a polluting industry.
“In the end, the deep pockets are the ones who will walk away happy,” she said.
Sun Journal writer Scott Thistle contributed to this report.