AUGUSTA, MAINE >> The Maine Public Utilities Commission has approved a plan, against the recommendation of its staff and objections from environmentalists, to require utility ratepayers to help pay for expanded natural gas — if other New England states follow suit.

The three commissioners appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage rejected the staff recommendation in voting unanimously for conditional approval Tuesday. Maine would participate only if four other New England states agree to similar plans.

The PUC contends expanded capacity is necessary to prevent winter price spikes, even though the staff concluded low oil and gas prices and new pipelines already under construction or being permitted could temper price spikes without ratepayers getting involved.

The action came after the Maine Legislature directed commissioners to determine whether it made sense for ratepayers to shoulder up to $75 million a year to buy natural gas.

Anthony Buxton, speaking on behalf of the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, applauded the decision that he said would help ensure adequate access to natural gas on the coldest days of winter instead of relying on other, costlier forms of energy to keep homes warm.

"With the exception of New England, all of the United States has access to that gas. New England does not have access exactly when we need it most during the cold of winter," he said.


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Critics contend the benefits are overstated. The Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts over a similar pipeline decision. Foundation attorney Ben Tettlebaum said the environmental group is committed to ensuring that the current proposal "dies on the vine." He took a shot at the LePage administration, accusing it of fighting renewable energy while offering concessions to "big gas."

It's now up to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to act.

"We're going to be dependent on the other states and their regulatory processes," PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy told the Portland Press Herald.