Gov. Paul LePage says he will put an open-ended moratorium on state permits for wind energy development in Maine. In an executive order Tuesday afternoon, LePage cites the importance of scenic vistas to Maine's $6 billion tourism economy. Wind advocates say he doesn't have the authority, and that he appears to be trying to derail Maine wind developers' bids for a big renewable energy contract that Massachusetts is due to announce Thursday.
The director of the Governor's Energy Office, Steve McGrath, says that while wind turbine projects do produce some jobs, western Maine, where wind developers want to site new projects, depends more on tourism.
"It's all about the folks in western Maine and their primary industry from their point of view: tourism,” says McGrath. “The impact on their ability to make a living if somebody else comes along and sites wind turbines on what they perceive to be the thing they are selling."
Wind energy advocates are angry.
"This is a new low in the administration's anti-wind attitude that we've been experiencing for seven years,” says Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
Payne says the announcement appears to be aimed at influencing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration is scheduled to announce the preliminary winners of a big new energy procurement Thursday. Payne says bids include about $2 billion worth of wind energy projects in Maine, from the western mountains to Aroostook County.
"This is very clearly an attempt to send a message to regulators in Massachusetts that this administration is going to do everything in its power to sink these projects and wreck investment.”
Payne calls it a "regulatory taking" of private property.
"That's something this administration has railed against for seven years, basically saying 'the Legislature or this agency has overstepped its bounds and is impacting the ability for one to monetize one's own land.' Well that's exactly what this executive order does."
Payne argues LePage is trying to tilt the playing field to favor a Central Maine Power Co. proposal to build transmission lines in order to carry electricity from Canada's Hydro Quebec dam system to Massachusetts.
Payne and others, including House Speaker Sara Gideon, say the governor doesn't have the authority to impose a moratorium.
But Chris O'Neill, an anti-wind-energy lobbyist for a group called Friends of Maine's Mountains, says state statute permits Moratoriums when there is a "clear and present threat" to the public interest, and that's what the Massachusetts request for proposal represents.
"There's hope that the selection committee in Boston hears this loud and clear, that a big 'ol stick has been jabbed into the spokes of wind in Maine," says O’Neill.
The executive director of the Maine Tourism Association says he supports the moratorium as a means to re-examine the state's framework for siting wind energy and protecting scenic vistas. So does Ed Rosenberg, who lives in Bryant Pond, not far from two proposed wind developments.
"I applaud the governor for what he's doing today,” says Rosenberg. “Somebody has to take a stand, otherwise all of our rural and beautiful areas in Maine are going to be destroyed by industrial wind, and there's very little benefit for Maine."
In the executive order accompanying his announcement of the moratorium, LePage says he will propose a new wind development law for Maine. LePage also says he will create a special commission to consider wind development's effects on the state and compliance with state and federal regulations. The Commission would include state officials, lawmakers, advocacy groups and business interests. The order would also exempt the commission's meetings from the state's public access law.