Nobody has ever accused Paul LePage of being a deep thinker. But Maine’s freshman governor is usually at least consistent on his major themes. He believes government spends too much, at all levels, for instance, and that welfare benefits create long-term dependence in many families.
You may not agree with his stance, but if you accept his premise, the rest follows clearly. Yet the governor is radically inconsistent about energy policy, a vital topic on which epochal decisions are about to be made.
One of LePage’s predecessors, Angus King, has been eloquent about Maine’s dangerous dependence on petroleum. In a state with some of the nation’s most abundant sources of renewable energy – wood fiber, wind, tides and rivers – we remain hooked on a fuel source of which not one drop is produced in Maine.
Our transportation system is fueled by gasoline and diesel, and public transportation hardly exists outside a handful of cities. Our homes are more dependent on No. 2 heating oil than in any other state. It makes no sense.
So LePage has been speaking out. He wants to get rid of the renewable energy portfolio requirement for electricity production, and also steer state energy policy to embrace currently cheap supplies of natural gas.
This does not add up. LePage says increasing renewable requirements, as now mandated by state law, is unreasonable because, a decade hence, we would get twice as much of our electricity from renewables as, say, Massachusetts.
What the governor ignores is that we have far more renewable energy right now than any other New England state. Just check your utility bill. Central Maine Power customers get five times as much hydropower in their mix as the New England average. Electricity suppliers can easily beat the targets.
And words have consequences. The LePage administration officially supports Maine's burgeoning wind industry, but the governor keeps carping about unspecified “damage” to mountains. LePage’s objections had a tangible result Wednesday, in the proposed denial of the Bowers Mountain wind farm, a project LURC almost certainly would have approved a year earlier.
As for boosting natural gas consumption, this is not a significant change in policy. It mainly reflects market opportunities. Even as petroleum prices soared to well over $100 a barrel, just before the financial implosion of September 2008, natural gas prices were beginning a long, slow decline.
In March 2007, oil futures briefly dipped to $49, before soaring over the next 18 months. Natural gas futures were about $7 per MMbtu then and are now at $3.50. No other energy source has shown such a precipitous drop.
The reasons, as usual, are complex, but one stands out: the prospect of enormous amounts of gas extracted from the Alberta tar sands, glutting pipelines throughout North America. The industry believes the tar sands, and the necessary pipelines across the Midwestern U.S., are a sure thing, but one wonders.
Developing the Alberta deposits will have enormous environmental consequences, and mining them will release more greenhouse gases than conventional oil and gas drilling. Considering the potentially catastrophic effects of fossil fuel burning, does it really make sense to substitute dependence on one irreplaceable fossil fuel with another fossil fuel, even one marginally less polluting?
The federal government still has major decisions to make about the pipeline. Though Canada says it will mine the tar sands with or without U.S. participation, it’s obvious we’re the customer it covets.
LePage thinks renewable energy is driving up the electricity prices, but he’s wrong. Every wind project now coming online has to match the market-clearing price, the least costly source – natural gas. In fact, the reason financing of wind projects has slowed is precisely because gas prices have sunk so far.
The governor’s position on energy is basically a set of prejudices rather than a plan. He’s correct that natural gas has a near-term role simply because we have to get power from somewhere, and natural gas is the cheapest – now far less costly than oil. Environmental groups sometimes don’t see that reality.
But LePage is deeply mistaken if he believes that renewable energy harms Maine’s economy. It’s practically our sole source of industrial growth, plus the high-paying jobs that come with it.
Fortunately, the Legislature seems to understand this far better than the governor. LePage’s campaign against the renewable standard fell flat in the last session, and will likely do so again in 2012. He’d be better off focusing on an issue where he’s more attuned to public opinion -- and to the public interest.