A vocal critic of commercial wind energy in Maine has resigned from Gov. Paul LePage’s secretive commission to study the industry, saying the group “lacks urgency, credibility and focus.”
Chris O’Neil, a consultant to the anti-wind organization Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said he welcomed the creation of the Maine Wind Energy Advisory Commission as a positive step toward investigating what he contends are the industry’s harmful impacts on the state’s “quality of place.” But in a resignation letter to LePage – also a fierce critic of the wind industry – O’Neil said he had ” little faith that it will achieve much, if anything.”
“Four months have passed since my appointment and the commission has not convened a meeting,” O’Neil wrote in his resignation letter, dated Sept. 19. “Election season is upon us. The departures from the administration of (Department of Economic and Community Development) Commissioner George Gervais and Energy Director Steve McGrath have denuded the commission of its designed leadership. Fully expecting additional late-term turnover as in any outgoing administration, I do not think we have the ability to produce a quality product.”
In an interview, O’Neil said Friends of Maine’s Mountains is involved in numerous other time-consuming issues, including legislative and gubernatorial elections and Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission line proposal with Hydro Quebec. Faced with those urgent priorities, the organization and O’Neil opted to focus elsewhere than on a commission that has yet to hold its first meeting.
“My client asked, ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?’ and that was never clear,” O’Neil said.
Maine generates more wind power than all of the other New England states combined, with 378 turbines carrying a maximum generation capacity of roughly 900 megawatts. Roughly 20 percent of the electricity generated in Maine last year came from wind turbines, according to federal data.
Supporters argue the industry has brought more than $1 billion in investment and created thousands of jobs, the vast majority during construction. O’Neil and other vocal critics contend, however, that the industry is destroying Maine mountaintops, disrupting neighbors and wildlife, and not benefiting local consumers because most of the energy is sold to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
LePage’s wind energy commission has been surrounded by controversy – and secrecy – ever since its inception in January. And O’Neil’s resignation suggests that, at least to date, the commission has existed only on paper.
Last January, LePage announced a moratorium on new wind energy projects in western and coastal Maine, prompting a lawsuit from the industry and a conservation group. The announcement came days before Massachusetts regulators were expected to unveil the initial winners of a bidding competition to supply huge amounts of renewable energy to that state. Several Maine-based wind farm proposals were in the mix for the contract, although none was successful.
At the same time, LePage also created the advisory commission “to develop the right policies that balance tourism, the needs of the communities, the environment and development,” he said at the time.
LePage explicitly exempted the commission from Maine’s public meetings and public records laws, exploiting a rarely used loophole in state law initially created to shield some sensitive discussions from public disclosure. And his administration has refused to even release the membership list of the commission, ignoring Freedom of Access Act requests from the Portland Press Herald and other organizations.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association that lobbies on behalf of the wind industry in Augusta, said he also was stonewalled when seeking basic information on the commission. Payne said the recent departures of Gervais and McGrath from the administration likely “put the final two nails in the coffin” of the commission and made clear to him the true intent of the task force and the moratorium.
“It was to try to send a message to Massachusetts regulators that if any of those (wind power) projects were selected, this administration would do everything to stop them,” Payne said.
Neither LePage’s communications office nor the acting director of the Governor’s Energy Office, Angela Monroe, responded to a request for comment Monday on the status of the commission or its membership. A public comment period on “the economic impact of potential wind turbines and expedited permitting” in Maine closed on Aug. 15 but those comments have yet to be made public.
O’Neil said he does not know who holds those comments and that he had not seen them.
“I will say, that was a factor in my turning away from (the commission),” he said.
As a lobbyist for Friends of Maine’s Mountains, O’Neil is one of the best-known opponents of Maine’s wind energy industry in Augusta and has apparently had periodic conversations or correspondence with LePage on the topic over the past eight years.
In his nine-page resignation letter, O’Neil wrote that he “would have preferred an open public process and discourse,” but accepted the governor’s invitation to join the commission in hopes that it would produce “a credible and actionable report.” However, O’Neil also criticized the commission’s focus on western and coastal Maine – as well as its focus on wind turbines’ potential impacts on tourism – as too narrow for a statewide issue.
“Again, thank you for listening over the last eight years to the voice of reason,” O’Neil wrote. “Your legacy will never depict you as a tree-hugging environmentalist, but you have been right about this issue that is such an environmental and economic disaster.”
The Maine Renewable Energy Association as well as the Conservation Law Foundation separately filed suit against the administration over LePage’s executive order prohibiting the issuance of new permits to wind power projects. A judge tossed out the cases in July, however, after the LePage administration admitted that it was not enforcing the order.
Payne has previously said that companies interested in building new wind power projects in Maine – representing $3 billion to $5 billion in potential investment – were waiting for November’s gubernatorial election before deciding whether to proceed. But he hopes that companies know “that Maine is open for business, even if this governor doesn’t support it.”
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