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LePage: Harvest More Timber to Lower Heating Bills
03/18/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Gov. Paul LePage will submit a bill to the Legislature this week that, if approved, would pump more money into a home heating conversion fund. He would pay for it by increasing the timber harvest limits on state-owned land. But critics of the plan say that's an improper use of those timber harvesting funds, which are intended for conservation purposes. A.J. Higgins has more.

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At a morning press conference, LePage came out swinging at the Democratically-controlled Legislature that he blamed for failing those who are still struggling with a brutally cold Maine winter.

"Right now Maine people are freezing and we're doing nothing about it," LePage said.

LePage assailed Democrats for instead favoring legislation that would provide rebates for solar energy - funded in part by ratepayers. LePage chided Democrats for pandering to special interests, and urged them instead to support the administration's heat pump pilot project, which he says will cost less, and offer a better rate of return than solar.

And by increasing the current timber harvesting yield on state-owned lands, he could infuse an additional $1 million into effective energy conservation projects.

"We have been cutting far less than the annual cut of our forest, so my suggestion was: Let's bring the annual cut to the annual growth of our forest. Let's bring the cut there, save those revenues and start using some of the increasing revenues to help Maine families convert their expensive heating systems to something that's more efficient, so they can save money in heating."

But the problem with LePage's plan, according to conservationists, is that it would cut timber from public lands at a rate that exceeds what's needed for healthy regeneration.

"Taking money from the woods and lands that are held in public trusts is a bad idea," says Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

And Voorhees says LePage's proposal is also at odds with the state's longtime practice of using revenues from public land harvests for conservation purposes. "Our public lands are not an ATM machine for us to fund programs, whether those are good programs or bad ones."

But as fuel oil prices hover in the $4-per-gallon range, lawmakers say they continue to hear plenty from constituents who want the Legislature to do more to encourage more affordable home heating options. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says LePage's plan is worth considering.

"To the extent that we can do this in an environmentally sound way, to covert over to something that could save people thousands of dollars, we should be doing that. It should be a top priority," Fredette said.

Although many Democrats support the solar rebate program currently under review by lawmakers, Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson says LePage's plans to explore alternative heating options is worthwhile. And - unlike some other Democrats - he doesn't necessarily have a problem with harvesting more timber on state-owned land.

But he says LePage is constitutionally barred from using any of that money for anything beyond conservation purposes.

"You know, it's just unbelievable that he can't get his head around that this is unconstitutional, but he'll make arguments on other things that aren't constitutional," Jackson says. "We should probably look at extending the harvest on these lands, but to put it back into programs that actually are much needed. The idea of putting money into heat pumps or solar rebates is a great idea - I think we should do that - but not with these revenues because we already know that, constitutionally, we can't do that."

It's a point conceded by the LePage administration. "Oh, we clearly need a statutory change," says Patrick Woodcock, the director of LePage's energy office. And Woodcock says the administration is prepared to back whatever statutory changes are needed to put the governor's plan into action.

"And the question is: What is the bigger priority right now for the state of Maine, when we have a heating crisis before us and so many options available to us to help Mainers stay warm in what has been a very challenging winter?" Woodcock says.

During the press conference, the governor reiterated his support for energy programs including solar - as long as they can demonstrate that will actually reduce costs for Mainers.


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