Maine Senate front-runner has long history with conservation, renewables

Source: Jennifer Yachnin, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, March 19, 2012

“Do you want the story of how I got rich and ran for governor? It’s kind of a funny story.”

That’s how former Maine Gov. Angus King, in a 2009 interview, described his entry into the world of energy conservation in the late 1980s — a decision that would ultimately make him millions of dollars and pave the way for his successful 1994 gubernatorial bid.

Since leaving office in 2003, King, who recently announced his independent bid for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), has returned to conservation, focusing on developing wind energy projects in his home state. Now 68, King is favored to win Snowe’s seat, in large part because Democrats have chosen not to run a top-tier candidate against him.

An aide to King’s nascent Senate campaign told E&E Daily that the ex-governor could not be reached for comment this week to discuss his environmental career. But in recent years, he has given extensive interviews to both Brunswick, Maine-based Bowdoin College and the Energy Department on both his past and current projects.

King offered a detailed look at his roots in the energy industry in 2009, when he was interviewed as part of the George Mitchell Oral History Project at Bowdoin, where King teaches a course on leadership.

Following stints on the campaign and in the office of then-Sen. William Hathaway (D-Maine), and then as an attorney in private practice in Maine, King joined Swift River Hafslund, a small energy management firm, in the early 1980s.

When that firm laid off nearly all of its staff in late 1988 — the company had focused on alternative energy projects, largely hydropower from small dams around New England as well as biomass — he struck out on his own.

“I had had an idea while working for this company about selling conservation in the same way that you sold power,” King told the Bowdoin interviewer. “In other words, to sell the utility energy savings on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, the same way you’d sell them power. The theory being that if you saved them energy, that was power that they didn’t have to buy.”

King pitched his conservation theory as a way to save money that would otherwise be spent on additional energy or even on new power plants.

King’s company, Northeast Energy Management, signed a contract with the Central Maine Power Co. to save 48 million kilowatt-hours of energy each year. The firm eventually managed about four dozen electrical conservation projects in Maine, including one at Bowdoin, as well as at Colby College and Maine Medical Center, he said.

“[I] had a very difficult time finding financing for the business, because it was such a new idea the banks couldn’t really understand it,” King said in 2009. “I got turned down by three or four, five banks, finally found a bank that was willing to take a chance, and it worked. It took four years; we did about $12 million worth of construction, about half of which was simply changing light fixtures.”

The business model proved successful, King said, and nearly five years later, he debated whether to “cash out” or expand the company to other states.

“I just decided it was already worth more money than [anybody] in my family had ever had in a thousand years, and I had lived through the ’80s where a lot of people in Portland, in Maine, had gotten very wealthy and then they’d gotten greedy and they’d lost it. And I said, ‘I’m not going to do that,'” he recalled in 2009. “So, I was offered a substantial hunk of dough for this business and sold it in January of ’94 and ran for governor.”

In fact, that substantial sum was around $19.8 million when Eastern Utility Associates purchased the company in 1994, the Bangor Daily News reported at that time. King told the newspaper that he made about $8 million after repaying bank loans, capital gains and other costs.

“So my life was changed really by that idea, which then turned into the business, and then it gave me the wherewithal to run for governor as an independent, and I couldn’t have done it without the [money], I funded about half of my campaign,” King told the interviewer.

But during the 1994 campaign, the Democratic nominee, ex-Gov. Joseph Brennan, criticized King for his business practices, airing ads that accused the independent candidate of receiving special treatment from Central Maine Power because his spouse, Mary Herman, had worked as a lobbyist for the power company. Brennan asserted Herman had lobbied on bills that helped King’s business.

“It’s true that Mary Herman was a lobbyist for CMP at that time. What’s not true is that she had anything to do at all with this contract,” King told the Bangor Daily News at the time. During a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board, King likewise offered up a former CMP official who dismissed Brennan’s accusations.

King ultimately won the contest for governor with 35 percent of the vote, defeating Brennan, who got 34 percent; now-Sen. Susan Collins (R), with 23 percent; and Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter, with 6 percent. He easily won a second term in 1998.

Preserving land, demolishing a dam

During his tenure, King won attention for his successful push of a program to provide laptops to middle school students, but Maine environmentalists focus on his dedication to land conservation efforts in the state.

“Certainly, while he was in office, he made it clear that he was in favor of cleaning up the environment and took a very pro-environmental stance,” said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “Land conservation was certainly the biggest element of that.”

King — who served as a part-time host of the public television public affairs show “Maine Watch” from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s — was involved in land conservation well before his election, helping to lead a $35 million bond issue in 1987 to help the state acquire land for recreation and preservation.

“Everybody’s got a wish list,” King told The New York Times at the time, adding that he favored the purchase of large tracts of land rather than “dribs and drabs.”

During his tenure as governor, King successfully pushed for another bond issue in 1999 to purchase additional land and easements.

“Former Governor Angus King was a strong supporter of the Land for Maine’s Future program. He supported a $50 million land bond that has helped protect working farmland and working waterfronts, wild areas,” said Maine Conservation Voters Executive Director Maureen Drouin. “We haven’t passed a land conservation bond of that size since he was in office.”

“Maine’s environment is our economic engine, and the top industries of the state, including forestry and recreation and fishing and farming, all of those industries rely on a clean and healthy environment,” she added.

But Brewer said that during his tenure, King, who has described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, won praise for his ability to balance environmental policies with business interests.

“One of the things I think King was good at, and it will be interesting to see if this plays out in the Senate campaign, he was good at presenting environmental policies and presenting them as smart business policies at the same time,” Brewer said, suggesting King would often link issues such as clean water rules to the state’s fishing industry.

During his first campaign for governor, King was often critical of the state’s environmental permitting process, arguing that it was too lengthy and drove business away from the state.

Evan Richert, who served as director of the Maine State Planning Office during King’s tenure, said he believes the former chief executive’s biggest environmental achievement was the Kennebec River settlement, which led to the decommissioning of the Edwards Dam.

“Angus was able to help bring that about in conjunction with a strong and important environmental coalition, and with industry to find a way to make it a win-win,” said Richert, who now heads Richert Planning, a land-use consulting firm. “I think a hallmark of his term in office was an ability to find ways to make the outcome acceptable to parties that might otherwise be at war.”

King and others pushed for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to decommission the Edwards Dam, built in the 1800s, arguing that environmental needs, including the spawning habits of American shad, bass and sturgeon, outweighed the benefits from the energy the structure produced.

When it was removed in 1999, it marked the first time the federal government had agreed to demolish a dam for the purpose of environmental protection.

“It was very much an achievement jointly made by the environmental coalition along the Kennebec River and industry and the administration,” Richert said. “If you want to understand the way Governor King thinks about things, you should look at the history of the Edwards Dam.”

Wind power

More recently, King has been involved in creating wind farms in Maine.

In a 2009 interview with the Energy Department, King said he was inspired to become involved with the wind industry after testifying in 2006 in favor of a proposed wind turbine farm in eastern Maine, which was ultimately rejected over a range of concerns from endangered species to aesthetics.

“Here was an opportunity to do something about climate change, but the big picture wasn’t getting across,” King recalled in the 2009 interview.

Motivated by his experience, King and Rob Gardiner, the former head of Maine’s Bureau of Public Lands and a former director of the Maine Advocacy Center for the Conservation Law Foundation, ultimately founded the firm Independence Wind in 2007.

“I like the idea of trying to do something about climate change. This is an opportunity to try to solve, rather than just talk about solving, problems,” King said in that interview. “My feeling about Maine is that we have to take advantage of the assets that we have. There are a lot of things we don’t have, but we do have wind, we have the Gulf of Maine, water supply and forests. We need to play with the hand we were dealt, work with the assets that we have, and Maine has the most wind potential in New England.”

Since that time, Independence Wind partnered with New Hampshire-based Wagner Forest Management, to construct a 22-turbine wind farm in Roxbury, Maine, known as Record Hill Wind.

The project also received a $102 million loan guarantee from DOE in early 2011, as well as investments from the Yale University Endowment, although the school did not indicate how much it has invested in the project.

A group called Concerned Citizens to Save Roxbury filed a lawsuit to halt the project in 2010, disputing the Maine Board of Environmental Protection’s decision to issue a permit for the project as well as a study of noise levels conducted on behalf of Record Hill Wind.

The Maine Supreme Court rejected the case in March 2011 and upheld the environmental board’s decision.

The Lewiston Sun-Journal reported in December that all 22 of the wind turbines were operational.

Although the website belonging to Independence Wind indicates the company is also working on a second project in Highland Plantation, Maine, documents available from the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission indicate King pulled the application for the 39-turbine wind farm in May 2011.

In a letter to the Maine Land Use Commission at that time, King indicated that Highland Wind LLC would need additional time to “satisfy agency concerns” with the project and planned to refile its application.

“Our goal is to develop a project that produces nonpolluting energy for Maine and New England, is environmentally balanced and treats local people fairly,” King told the Portland Press Herald at that time.

That project had also drawn objections from groups including the Friends of the Highland Mountains and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

Enviro support not guaranteed

Despite his long affiliation with conservation and renewable energy projects, King does not necessarily have a lock on environmental endorsements in the Senate contest.

Among the Republicans vying for the Senate seat is former state Senate President Rick Bennett, a one-time board member of the Maine Conservation Voters who won the group’s endorsement in his bids for state office.

“The national League of Conservation Voters is going to do a very thorough evaluation of all the candidates, because there are some interesting candidates who have filed in the Republican Party, too,” said MCV’s Drouin.

Drouin noted that the Maine Conservation Voters does not endorse in federal contests, although like all state groups it may advise the national-level League of Conservation Voters should it opt to back a candidate in the race.

“We will have to see what happens with that primary,” Drouin added. “I think Angus King is definitely someone they will consider, and they’ll certainly take … clean energy policies into strong consideration.”

Other Republicans competing for the seat include Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers; former Lisbon Falls Town Selectman Scott D’Amboise, a conservative who lost a 2006 bid to Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine); and state Sen. Deb Plowman. Majority party candidates had until yesterday afternoon to turn in the 2,000-signature petition required to gain access to the ballot.

Democrats who filed for the seat include former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, state Sen. Cynthia Dill and state Rep. Jon Hinck.

More prominent Democrats, including Michaud and Rep. Chellie Pingree, as well as former Gov. John Baldacci, declined to seek the seat, an indication that national party leaders may be tacitly backing King — even though he endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2000 and has not said which party he will caucus with if he’s elected to the Senate.