AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage imposed a moratorium on new wind energy permits in much of Maine on Wednesday while establishing a commission that will meet behind closed doors to study the economic impacts of wind turbines on the state’s tourism industry.
LePage, a long-time critic of wind energy, issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from issuing permits “related to wind turbines” in western and coastal Maine, coastal islands and “significant avian migratory pathways” until a report is issued on the impacts of wind energy. That report will be crafted by an 11- to 15-member Maine Wind Energy Advisory Commission whose meetings, according to the executive order, will be closed to the public and not subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
The commission will be charged with assessing how wind power affects the state’s electricity rate structure and wind power’s economic impact, both from existing and future projects. Lastly, the commission will propose policies “regulating the future deployment and operation of wind turbines” in Maine, which is New England’s largest generator of wind energy and the site of intense interest from energy companies.
LePage’s office is also expected to unveil legislation in the coming days aimed at changing Maine’s controversial expedited permitting system for wind energy projects throughout rural Maine.
“While out-of-state interests are eager to exploit our western mountains in order to serve their political agendas, we must act judiciously to protect our natural beauty,” LePage said in a statement. “I urge the commission to take the time they need to develop the right policies that balance tourism, the needs of the communities, the environment and development.”
LePage’s moratorium and executive order was quickly denounced by advocates of Maine’s sizable wind energy industry and other backers of renewable power, who already view Maine’s Republican governor as hostile to “green” energy.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, described the action as “a new low” from a governor who Payne said has spent the past seven years bashing wind power. Payne questioned the legality of LePage’s moratorium and suggested the timing was intended to influence Massachusetts regulators, who are expected to announce any day the winner of a competition to supply that state with renewable energy.
“This is an attempt to thwart billions of dollars of investment that is looking at Maine,” Payne said in an interview. “What kind of a message are we sending to the world here when the governor is able to decide without any statutory authority to wreck a billion-dollar industry?”
House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, also raised questions about LePage’s legal authority.
“It’s disappointing, though unfortunately not surprising, that Governor LePage believes he can unilaterally overrule the clear intentions of the Legislature when it comes to developing clean, renewable and job-creating energy policy in Maine,” Gideon said in a statement. “I’m confident that this backward-looking Executive Order, in clear conflict with existing statute, would be unable to withstand legal scrutiny if, and when, challenged. In the meantime, I will continue to work with stakeholders and my colleagues in the Legislature to capitalize on Maine’s natural resources and build a clean energy economy.”
Maine had 378 wind turbines with a maximum generation capacity of 901 megawatts last year, more than all other New England states combined and ranking Maine 21st nationally, according to a 2017 report from the American Wind Energy Association. LePage has been a persistent critic of the industry despite its investment in Maine, suggesting that wind power projects drive up electricity costs for ratepayers and could not compete without government subsidies.
Steve McGrath, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said he expects the text of LePage’s legislation to be released in the coming days. While he declined to go into specifics until the language is final, McGrath said the bill will address the concerns over impacts to tourism that LePage raised in his executive order.
“Tourism is a major industry in the state of Maine,” McGrath said. “It attracts multipliers of the state’s population . . . and they spend a lot of money. And if we are going to have wind turbines all over the state, we ought to know the impact cradle-to-grave of those turbines.”
There is no dispute that commercial wind power projects can be controversial in Maine, especially among nearby landowners concerned about 400-foot-tall turbines marring their views or about the effects of vibrations and light flicker caused by spinning blades. But wind energy appears to have strong support among the Maine public, according to polls. And supporters accuse the governor of taking steps to scuttle an industry that has created or supported thousands of jobs in Maine over the past decade.
The governor’s critics also point out a disconnect between LePage claiming to want to protect the state’s “natural beauty” from wind turbines while he pushes for commercial mining in Maine and remains open to oil drilling in the North Atlantic.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, was among those who accused LePage of focusing on the wrong issues.
“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 in a tweet.
LePage’s order comes a day before a selection committee in Massachusetts is scheduled to announce the initial round of winners to supply huge amounts of renewable energy to the Bay State.
A handful of proposals that would move hydroelectricity from Canada through northern New England are included, but so are several wind projects that would be sited in Maine. They include wind farms in the western Maine mountains, as well as Aroostook County.
The timing of the governor’s announcement raises questions about whether he is attempting to short-circuit those ventures, should one or more emerge as contenders in the Massachusetts Clean Energy request-for-proposal process. The concern for Payne, with the renewable energy group, and other wind power backers is that Massachusetts decision-makers might pass over wind projects in Maine if it appears that they will become bogged down in a moratorium fight.
Chris O’Neil, a consultant who often represents wind energy critics in Augusta, hopes the governor’s executive order sends a message south.
“The hope is that the selection committee interprets this as a very big stick jabbed into Big Wind’s spokes,” O’Neil wrote in an email. “There are good and bad projects bidding in the RFP. This news should help the folks in Boston focus on the good ones.”
This story will be updated.
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