Agencies tilting at windmills
Killing BEP wasn’t a point that attracted the most attention in the lobbyist-written “environmental rollback” agenda. Those items included gutting the kidsafe product act and zoning 3 million acres of the North Woods for development. But preserving BEP was among the most important.
BEP is unusual among state agencies, in that a citizen board reviews administrative decisions of the Department of Environmental Protection.
At the time DEP was created, it was thought that its decisions could be so far-reaching, with such a dramatic effect on Maine’s quality of life, that the agency should be subject to independent review.
The wisdom of that decision has been confirmed many times — as it was again last week, when BEP overturned a ruling against a 14-turbine wind project on Passadumkeag Mountain in southern Penobscot County.
DEP’s staff and commissioner were ruling on the first major wind project in the unorganized territory since that task was removed from the former Land Use Regulation Commission last year.
Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho and spokeswoman Samantha Depoy-Warren sounded pretty sure of themselves before the BEP voted 5-1 to vacate the DEP wind farm denial.
“Anyone who looked at the picture agreed that there was an unreasonable adverse impact from this project,” said Depoy- Warren, who pointed out that BEP had “never” reversed a staff decision on wind power. But then, it had never considered one in the unorganized territory, either.
Even after the vote, Aho strayed outside the role of an administrator legally subordinate to BEP.
“Sometimes we need to say no and the board’s vote calls into question whether we can truly do that when it comes to mountaintop development,” she said.
To which one must respond: Commissioner, it’s not your call.
The issue at Passadumkeag Mountain was the same one LURC, in its final vote on wind power, used to curtail the Bowers Mountain wind project nearby: visual impact.
This is a notoriously subjective area that is nevertheless fairly well defined in state law. Where the view is unusually significant, agencies may consider impacts up to eight miles from the project site — though, even then, a project must create an “unreasonably adverse” impact.
Simply saying that the turbines are visible from “97 percent” of nearby Saponac Pond in the town of Lincoln, as Depoy- Warren did, doesn’t answer the question.
If simple visibility of a wind turbine were the standard, it’s safe to say no more wind projects of this scale would ever be built in Maine.
Like much our public life, wind turbines have become intensely polarized. Some Mainers who live within a few miles of them — but much too far away to hear their operation — have decided they are an affront to their peace of mind, and have become increasingly well-organized. There are actually antiwind lobbyists at the State House, whose arguments find sympathetic ears in the LePage administration.
But the state has set a priority on responsible development of its wind resource, the largest in the Northeast, through agreement by a wide variety of stakeholders, including the state’s largest environmental groups. Not everyone is going to agree, naturally, but not wanting to see a distant wind tower isn’t a valid reason for denying construction permits.
Gov. LePage was more restrained than usual in his criticism of BEP, saying only that he was “deeply disappointed.” Perhaps that’s because he’s already appointed four members of the seven-member board. Three of them sided with the majority, while the fourth, while dissenting, conceded that DEP’s denial arguments were “vague.”
LePage, who’s reiterated at every opportunity his interest in importing hydropower from Quebec, seems curiously uninterested in Maine’s indigenous renewable wind energy, which has produced $1 billion in capital investment here and could produce $1 billion more if the regulatory environment remains consistent.
Buying hydropower from Quebec produces no more economic benefit here than buying petroleum and — something LePage never mentions — would require hundreds of millions of dollars to build necessary transmission lines from Canada, the kind of construction people might like even less than wind towers.
Admittedly, DEP wasn’t one of LePage’s favorite causes.
His first choice as commissioner, developer Darryl Brown, was forced to resign because of legal conflicts. His second, Aho, was best known at the State House as lobbyist for the Maine Petroleum Association.
Executive authority should be subject to reasonable review in the courts and, in this case, through a citizen board, BEP. It’s a timely reminder on how much we rely on checks and balances to make our democratic system work.
DOUGLAS ROOKS is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.