Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts in the Legislature to limit renewable-power purchases and energy-efficiency spending in Maine suffered a serious blow Tuesday when his energy policy director resigned.
Kenneth Fletcher, who led LePage’s initiatives for the past two years, will be replaced by a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Patrick Woodcock of Bangor most recently served as Snowe’s senior adviser for energy and environment issues.
Woodcock faces a challenge in succeeding Fletcher, a former lawmaker who served on the Legislature’s energy committee and developed a good working relationship with lawmakers as he promoted LePage’s sometimes controversial policies.
LePage is poised to reintroduce proposals to the new Legislature that would curtail renewable-power purchases and energy-efficiency spending. The governor says those mandates contribute to higher electricity costs and hurt Maine’s economy.
Supporters say wind power and conservation programs create jobs and reduce Maine’s dependence on imported energy.
LePage was unsuccessful in making changes in the last session, despite a Legislature controlled by fellow Republicans. Fletcher, who had served eight years on the committee that deals with energy issues and was the ranking Republican member, acted as an important bridge between the governor and lawmakers.
Without Fletcher, LePage will face an uphill battle with a Legislature that has Democratic majorities. Although he has deep background with national energy issues, Woodcock isn’t widely known in the State House.
“I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll say he has tough shoes to fill, in terms of Ken Fletcher,” said Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.
Hobbins is the incoming House chair of the Energy and Utilities Committee, and served previously as the Senate chair of the committee, with Fletcher.
“I wish Patrick Woodcock well,” Hobbins said. “I don’t know him, but I’m sure we’ll get to know him pretty well over the next two years.”
In a phone interview with the Portland Press Herald, Woodcock said he will start the job on Monday. “I’m excited about this new challenge,” he said.
Woodcock is from Hampden and is a 2004 Bowdoin College graduate. He was Snowe’s primary adviser on energy and environmental issues relating to work on the Senate Finance Committee and Commerce Committee.
He was the assistant to the legislative director and worked with the senior adviser on climate change during consideration of the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
The departure of Fletcher, 67, was not unexpected. He had hinted to colleagues that he planned to retire before the next legislative session. Woodcock said he worked closely with Fletcher and learned of his plans while exploring job opportunities in Maine. Thursday is his last day in Snowe’s office, as her term ends.
Before being asked to direct the Governor’s Energy Office, Fletcher worked as a consultant, providing managerial and technical expertise to a variety of companies throughout the United States, including Huhtamaki Foodservices Inc., Madison Paper Corp. and Wausau-Mosinee Paper Corp. He lives in Winslow.
Fletcher said in a written statement that he appreciated the opportunity to work with the administration. “Governor LePage has clearly articulated the importance of lowering electricity prices while creating options for residents and businesses to control their total energy costs,” he said.
Fletcher’s departure is a loss for the state, said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents papermakers and other large electricity customers in the Industrial Energy Consumer Group.
Fletcher worked over the past two years to help get low-cost natural gas to more people in Maine, Buxton said. He convened a group of natural-gas utilities and brainstormed ideas to expand gas pipelines in the state.
“Someone needs to pick up where Ken left off,” Buxton said. “Because he worked in a paper mill, he knew how much natural gas meant to the Maine economy.”
Fletcher had a lot of credibility with lawmakers, Buxton said, and that helped him present LePage’s policies to skeptics.
Buxton noted that Fletcher voted in favor of the state’s renewable-energy policies when he was in the Legislature, then had to oppose them as LePage’s representative.
“Ken carried out the governor’s energy policies, whether he agreed with them or not,” Buxton said. “He was an honest broker.”
Woodcock said he shares Fletcher’s desire to expand natural gas and will work aggressively to make that happen.
He also said he will seek ways to move beyond disputes about renewable-energy policy, in the interest of lowering energy costs for homes and businesses.
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