Paul LePage bans wind turbines but has no problem with offshore drilling

Maine governor orders creation of secret panel to study wind projects.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage on January 24, 2018, ordered a halt to permits for new wind energy generation facilities. CREDIT: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Maine Gov. Paul LePage on January 24, 2018, ordered a halt to permits for new wind energy generation facilities. CREDIT: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Maine’s governor imposed a moratorium on new wind energy projects in the state on Wednesday out of fear that the projects could harm the state’s tourism industry. At the same time, Gov. Paul LePage (R) is supporting efforts by the Trump administration to open the Atlantic Coast, including waters off the coast of Maine, to oil and gas drilling.

LePage has fought the growth of renewable energy in his state ever since taking office in 2011, using tourism and consumer energy costs as reasons for his opposition to both wind and solar power. But Maine’s tourism industry saw its revenue increase for the fourth straight year in 2016, growing by 6 percent over 2015. Even with the growth in wind power, Maine had the lowest average electricity retail prices in New England at the end of 2016 and electricity prices in the state have remained stable over past several years.

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In other states, governors have adopted a different stance on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s proposal to open almost all of the nation’s offshore waters to drilling. Florida Gov. Rick Scott successfully convinced Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to take his state off the list for drilling out of fear that offshore oil and gas rigs would harm the state’s tourism industry. Other governors have informed Zinke that offshore drilling would harm tourism along their coasts.

In conjunction with his announcement of the wind project moratorium, LePage issued an executive order that creates a commission to study the impact of wind farms on the environment, property values, and tourism. The timing of LePage’s announcement about the moratorium and creation of the commission is contributing to suspicions that the governor is trying to prevent growth in the state’s wind energy industry.

LePage ordered the moratorium one day before Massachusetts regulators are expected to announce the initial round of winners of a bidding competition to supply large amounts of renewable energy to the state. Several Maine-based wind projects are vying for the lucrative contracts in Massachusetts. “This is an attempt to thwart billions of dollars of investment that is looking at Maine,” Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald.

By placing an open-ended moratorium on development of wind power in Maine, LePage sent a message to clean energy investors that the state is “not open for business,” Dylan Voorhees, clean energy project director for Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a statement Wednesday.

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In his executive order, LePage stated: “I order that no permits related to wind turbines are issued … until the report is issued in writing.” The governor will pick the members of the commission.

LePage, the only governor on the East Coast to support Trump’s drilling proposal, is pushing back against his state’s wind energy industry at the same time that the renewable energy source gains momentum on a national level. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is projecting that wind will surpass hydropower in 2018 as the largest renewable electricity generation source in the United States.

Despite LePage’s anti-renewable policy positions over the past seven years, Maine is the largest wind energy producer in New England and ranks 21st in the nation in wind energy capacity, with a total of 901 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Nearly two-thirds of Maine’s net electricity generation came from renewable energy resources in 2016, with 25 percent from hydroelectricity, 24 percent from wood products, and 14 percent from wind, according to EIA.

LePage’s wind energy commission will be composed of no more than 15 representatives from state agencies and other entities that have interests in the siting of wind turbines in western Maine. The governor’s executive order stated the commission will not be subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. This means its meetings and documents will not be open to the public. State law allows governors to keep advisory boards from public access if the condition is stated in the executive order.

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“LePage created a secret panel with enormous power to prevent wind power from being developed in Maine,” Voorhees, said. Shielding the panel’s proceedings from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is “outrageous,” he added.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D), one of Maine’s two members of the House of Representatives, also criticized LePage’s decision to create the commission. “Instead of wasting taxpayer money studying the impact of wind turbines on Maine tourism, Governor LePage should be working to reduce the harmful affects of climate change on our state’s health, economy, and environment,” Pingree said Wednesday in a tweet.

LePage, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, has adopted many positions against renewable energy since taking office. During his two terms as governor, he has been one of the nation’s most outspoken climate deniers, targeting anti-pollution, clean energy and efficiency programs. He has also argued that Maine could benefit from the effects of climate change, even as its shrimping fishery collapsed in part due to higher water temperatures.

As part of his crusade against renewables, LePage cited a report in 2012 that said Maine’s renewable energy mandate would cost electricity ratepayers $145 million and nearly 1,000 jobs. The study was published by the Beacon Hill Institute, a right-wing think tank formerly housed at Suffolk University in Boston that has received significant funding from fossil fuel interests.

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In 2013, energy giant Statoil abandoned plans to build a $120 million demonstration wind farm off the Maine coast. The Norway-based company cited regulatory uncertainty for wind energy in Maine for its decision to discontinue the project. “This is the same governor who blew Maine’s best shot at a multi-billion dollar offshore wind industry when he pulled out of [the] Statoil agreement. Now he is determined to ban onshore wind power development, which has huge potential and has already brought more than $400 million in investment and hundreds of jobs to Maine,” Voorhees said.

LePage opposed the Statoil project, arguing it did not provide enough benefits to Maine. On other hand, LePage supports new oil and gas drilling off Maine’s coasts. In fact, he’s the only governor of a state along the Atlantic Coast who supports oil and gas leasing.

LePage also is not a fan of solar power. Last year, the Maine Legislature failed to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would have temporarily kept financial incentives in place for residents with rooftop solar panels. Given his anti-renewables track record, solar energy proponents were not surprised by the governor’s veto. “The governor has been on a crusade against solar power and solar legislation for several years now,” Voorhees said at the time.