POLITICS:

Maine and New England stew over climate and energy projects

A just-completed debate marathon by Maine's candidates for governor highlighted a contentious contest with climate and energy ramifications across New England.

The outcome of the race among Republican climate skeptic Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent candidates, analysts say, could determine the state's role in the nation's only cap-and-trade system, operating in the Northeast. It also is an example of the political intensity hovering over the region heading into tomorrow, as governor's races from Maine to Connecticut rank as tossup contests.

In Maine, the issues parallel those in many other New England races. The next governor will hold sway over how the state regulates and finances energy projects, as well as its degree of participation in negotiations over low-carbon fuel standards and other regional initiatives.

"This is one of the most important races in Maine in years in terms of the environment," said Daniel Sosland of Environment Northeast, which did not endorse any of the candidates. Polls released in the past week from Rasmussen Reports and Pan Atlantic SMS Group show LePage with a 6- to 14-point lead over Eliot Cutler, an independent and former White House energy aide during the Carter administration. Mitchell is tied for second or trailing in third, depending on the survey.

LePage is likely to win because of a split vote between liberal-leaning voters wavering between Mitchell and Cutler, said Brian Duff, an associate professor of political science at the University of New England.

At debates last week and this fall, LePage, Cutler and Mitchell followed similar rhetorical patterns on energy. Cutler and Mitchell expressed concern about climate change and praised the Northeastern states' regional cap-and-trade program, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. LePage fielded questions about his prior comments questioning climate science while raising concerns about energy costs associated with wind and solar power.

Cutler and Mitchell said they supported 2010 goals set by the state Legislature for 3,000 megawatts of wind in the next decade, while LePage said no, citing the challenges of storing wind power.

Natural gas trumps wind power

"You can't say you're going to use wind to lower the costs of energy at the current time," LePage said last week at a debate in Portland. "It just simply doesn't work. So natural gas is an immediate issue. ... We need to bring it in to the entire state." Natural gas currently fires about 44 percent of Maine's electricity, with hydroelectric dams and other renewables powering 50 percent.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is too adversarial to the private sector, LePage said at another debate at the University of Southern Maine. Nuclear and additional hydroelectric power, as well as offshore drilling off of Maine's coast, need to be under consideration along with renewables, he said. The state has torn down too many hydroelectric dams, he said, referring to closings to protect fish.

"We bring everything to the table. We pick those energy sources that provide common sense ... proven science ... and then we prioritize them, with the environment and price being key issues," LePage said.

Cutler called the idea of offshore drilling in Maine waters "absolutely nuts." He pushed for creation of a financing authority to construct energy infrastructure and invest in renewable and natural gas projects. He questioned whether LePage's support of increased natural gas to decrease state dependence on home heating oil would work without such a financing authority to build gas pipelines.

Mitchell said in Portland's debate that renewables such as offshore wind could displace "the need for 30 nuclear power plants," echoing environmentalists' charges against LePage over the nuclear issue. She mentioned climate change without a prompt.

"I'm sorry that Paul has such a bleak picture. I also believe in global warming. I think that it is an important public policy goal," she said when asked about state job creation. When queried about the state's future fuel mix, she immediately turned to RGGI, which has been capping carbon dioxide emissions in the Northeast since 2008 by requiring utilities to participate in carbon auctions.

"We have used that money [from RGGI] to give money back to the Maine people," she said.

A fog hangs over the future of RGGI

According to political scientist Duff, Mitchell's frequent mentions of climate change are a smart political strategy, since environmental activism is popular in the state. He said it is a way of reminding voters of a LePage "weakness" -- his former comments about global warming that are contrary to the views of most scientists.

LePage told a group of students in October that he "just doesn't know how severe [global warming] is, and I'm not sure how much we as human beings contribute to it." When asked about the issue at a September debate, LePage said, "I don't know [if] global warming is a myth or not. ... I will say this. I do not believe in the Al Gore science."

On radio talk shows, LePage also has called for abolishing the Department of Energy and U.S. EPA.

His various comments set off a flurry of attack ads in recent weeks from Mitchell and environmental groups in the state and across the country. There have been anti-LePage blogs by various green groups in Washington, D.C. The Maine Conservation Voters Action Fund charged in one October spot that LePage's proposals on nuclear power and offshore drilling are "reckless."

LePage hasn't outlined his position on RGGI or the state's existing greenhouse gas targets, but his comments raise questions about how aggressively his administration would participate in RGGI's revision process in the coming year, Sosland said. Among other things, an incoming governor will have the opportunity to appoint representatives negotiating the program's future design.

The regional cap-and-trade program might be considering, for example, whether to raise its existing cap on emissions. The current carbon cap was set before the recession prompted emissions to fall naturally and thus has done little to change utility behavior, according to analysts (ClimateWire, July 14).

A 'no climate tax' pledge

"A governor who really hated RGGI could do some damage," Sosland said. Similarly, he said a governor hostile to low-carbon fuel standards, which are under consideration regionally via a memorandum of understanding but not set in law, could direct state agencies to dedicate less time and resources to the issue.

Additionally, Maine is examining whether to buy a large amount of hydroelectric power from Canada-based Hydro-Québec. Cutler has said that his proposed financing authority could make bulk purchases of power from Hydro-Québec for resale in Maine. Both LePage and Mitchell say they are open to discussions with Hydro-Québec, but Mitchell seems more intent on protecting local renewable businesses from Canadian competition, said Jeremy Payne of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

At the same time, it's never clear what a governor would actually do in office, Sosland said.

LePage recently signed a "no climate tax" pledge from Americans for Prosperity, a group started by oil businessmen. He also, however, signed the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement while mayor of Waterville, Maine. The agreement pledges cities to slash emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Mitchell, Cutler and LePage did not comment for this article. But in public remarks, LePage deflected environmental criticism nationally and locally by saying that the state Department of Environmental Protection is run by environmentalists and needs more balance.

In an interview with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, he said the agency blocked development of a peat-bog-fired power plant in the 1980s because of excessive permitting regulations, a charge the agency denies.

LePage's supporters point to his background as a businessman -- LePage is general manager of a surplus store, Marden's Inc. -- as evidence that he would boost a state facing a potential $1 billion budget shortfall. In its LePage endorsement last week, the Maine National Federation of Independent Business cited LePage's business background as the right choice to recover 32,000 jobs lost in the recession.

With Maine having some of the highest electricity costs in the nation, it is time for a Republican to take the governor's helm for the first time since 1995, other LePage supporters say.

"The people of Maine have had enough, and they deserve better. They know they have higher energy costs because of Democrats," Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said in a recent statement.

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