By Michael Shepherd
AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s leading oil and gas industry group issued a pledge that united Gov. Janet Mills, former Gov. Paul LePage and dozens of other 2022 candidates across the political spectrum on “energy choice.”
The wide agreement on a vague idea shows both the potency of high costs — particularly of heating oil and electricity — looming as a major issue facing Mainers in the approach to the election. It will not blunt hard policy conversations about the state’s energy future.
The Maine Energy Marketers Association, which represents heating oil and propane dealers and developed the pledge alongside groups advocating for auto dealers and truckers, asked candidates to oppose “efforts that restrict the ability of Maine citizens to choose the source of energy for their homes, businesses and vehicles.”
Signers skewed Republican, with 52 of them to just 15 Democrats. But it included some of Maine’s best-known politicians across the spectrum, from the Democratic governor to her Republican opponent and predecessor. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican opposing him, also signed.
Oil plays a major role in Maine, where three in five homes are heated with it, the highest mark in the nation. Prices spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, but they are now higher than they were then even after a steady decline since May.
That and the everlasting political tension between short- and long-term energy solutions make the issue a sensitive one in this election year. Mills entered office by enshrining goals of getting 100 percent of electricity from renewables and reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
During her tenure, the Democratic-led Legislature has expanded clean-energy subsidies, including a major solar incentive drive that led costs to skyrocket because prices were linked to the global energy market. Lawmakers passed a bipartisan fix this year. LePage wants to repeal it and has doubled down on an old effort to lift a renewable cap for hydropower.
The pledge was not linked to state-level energy policy, said Megan Diver, the energy association’s vice president. She said it was a response to costs as well as the drive to “electrify everything” and recent shifts in California, which instituted a plan to ban the sale of gasoline-powered passenger cars by 2035 that Mills said she was not inclined to follow.
“We wanted to show our members these are the people who support energy choice so that they can make an educated decision on who they choose to vote for in November,” Diver said.
Electrification has been the policy trend, however. LePage evangelized heat pumps and said in 2011 that he wanted oil use cut in half within three years. He also signed a 2016 deal with Quebec aimed at increasing electric-vehicle charging stations. Both LePage and Mills supported the Central Maine Power Co. hydropower corridor rejected by voters in 2021.
The idea of the pledge remains loose. For the past month or so, lawmakers and other candidates have been trumpeting it on social media.
Democrats used it to show renewables are not their only priority, with Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, saying, “It always has been about your choice in energy and trying to help with lowering the cost of your choice.
Republicans made a larger and more nationalized point about costs and inflation with statewide policy implications.
“Inflation caused by government overspending and meddling in the free-market system has many Mainers in a dangerous position as we head into winter with home heating oil priced higher than it has ever been,” said former House Speaker Robert Nutting of Oakland, who is running to return to the chamber.
The pledge was seen as “mom and apple pie” by Jeremy Payne, the executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, which represents wind and solar interests. He said it did not mean much with no serious efforts afoot to mandate large energy changes at once here. But the long-term directions of the state and region are clear, he said.
“At the end of the day, I think our energy policy is rightly leaving fossil fuels behind,” Payne said. “They are not cheap, and they are not clean.”