Gov. Paul LePage wants to eliminate Maine’s fast-tracked permitting process for commercial wind power projects throughout the state except specific locations within Aroostook County.
Last week, LePage announced a moratorium on new wind turbine permits in western and coastal Maine, and also vowed to seek changes to the “expedited permitting” process utilized by many developers of the state’s wind farms. The bill from the governor, which was printed Monday, would essentially gut the controversial, streamlined review process that has been in place during the decade of growth in Maine’s wind power industry.
But the bill, L.D. 1810, would maintain fast-track permitting for more than a dozen towns, plantations and townships in Aroostook County, an area long in the sights of wind power developers.
Steven McGrath, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said the bill is consistent with LePage’s executive order creating an advisory committee to study the economic impact of wind turbines on the Western Maine mountains, in coastal areas and along migratory bird pathways. The commission, which LePage exempted from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act so it can meet out of public view, is expected focus on LePage’s contention that wind turbines could harm tourism.
But the bill would also significantly expand – from eight miles to 40 miles – the area around turbines that could be subject to visual impact studies. That could raise the regulatory hurdle for projects that are still within expedited permitting areas.
McGrath said that as the wind industry has developed in Maine, “the turbines have gotten bigger, the blades have gotten longer and, in our opinion, 40 miles is the right number.”
For wind power advocates, however, LePage’s bill is his latest misguided attack on an industry that is creating jobs and helping Maine transition away from fossil fuels.
“This job-killing bill is just the latest example of the governor’s short-sighted and adversarial attitude toward one of the only industries looking to invest in Maine,” Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, wrote in an email. “I hope the governor will come explain to the many Maine families whose livelihood depends on being able to construct, maintain and operate these wind farms why he’s trying to close this industry down. And I hope he also explains to the many property owners why he’s stripped them of the ability to monetize their land.”
Maine’s expedited permitting system for wind energy projects has been controversial almost from the start.
Passed by the Legislature in 2008, the law streamlined the permitting process for wind power projects in all of Maine’s organized towns and about one-third of the Unorganized Territories. Projects proposed for expedited permitting areas would still have to go through regulatory review, but the process gave less weight to the turbines’ impacts on scenic views and featured fewer avenues for appeal.
Supporters say the law provided the regulatory predictability that enabled Maine to become New England’s largest source of wind energy. As of last year, Maine had 378 wind turbines with a maximum generation capacity of 901 megawatts, more than all other New England states combined.
But opponents have long maintained that the expedited permitting process robs property owners affected by the projects – and especially those in the Unorganized Territory – of a strong voice in the regulatory review.
Critics of Maine’s wind power industry contend the massive turbines generate sound, vibrations and light flicker that can harm neighbors’ sleep and health while disrupting wildlife. They also argue that turbines can hurt local property values, require hilltops or mountaintops to be cleared of trees and require taxpayer subsidies to be economically competitive.
Chris O’Neil, a consultant who works with Friends of Maine Mountains, one of the organizations most critical of the expedited permitting law and what they call “Big Wind,” was pleased with aspects of LePage’s bill.
“The (40-mile) scenic impact standard is smart and appropriate, especially given what we’ve learned since diving blind into wind 10 years ago,” O’Neil wrote in an email. “The expedited area is a farce, no matter where it is, so while FMM welcomes its shrinkage, FMM reiterates that it shouldn’t exist at all.”
Efforts to repeal or scale back the streamlined review process have consistently faltered in the Legislature. But LePage and other critics landed a major blow several years ago when lawmakers passed a bill allowing residents of unorganized or deorganized territories to petition for removal from the expedited permitting area.
As a result, the Land Use Planning Commission agreed in 2016 to remove more than 40 townships and plantations from the expedited permitting area.
Aroostook County is home to two wind energy facilities: a 28-turbine wind farm in Mars Hill and a 48-turbine facility in Oakfield. But Aroostook has been the site of numerous, large-scale proposals.
Asked why the governor has proposed keeping parts of Aroostook in the streamlined permitting process, McGrath said Aroostook did not raise the same concerns as the mountains of western Maine, the coast and migratory bird flyways.
LePage’s bill is likely to run into substantial opposition from wind project developers, construction firms and environmental groups. The bill likely will be referred to the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.
Meanwhile, the governor’s moratorium on new turbine permits is likely to face legal challenges from advocates for wind power. And Attorney General Janet Mills on Monday pushed back on the governor’s moratorium.
“Executive Orders do not change the law,” Mills said in a statement. “We are not aware of any applications for permits that are pending and we will advise agencies if and when any new applications are received.”
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