Green Divide: LePage, Mills environmental records a study in contrasts

The first piece of legislation that newly elected Gov. Paul LePage introduced was a regulatory reform bill he said would cut bureaucratic red tape that stifled economic growth, but that environmental groups said would roll back some of Maine’s most important environmental protections.

A watered-down version of the bill, which had originally sought to repeal a ban on a toxic chemical in children’s products, overturn an electronic waste recycling law and abolish the Board of Environmental Protection, among other things, would eventually pass with bipartisan support.

It was the first in eight years of battles between LePage, a pugnacious pro-business Republican, and the environmental groups that grew to despise him. He insists he’s both pro-business and pro-environment, the way a fisherman, farmer or forester can both protect a resource and work it at the same time.

“We’ve never had the environmentalist elites and we never will,” LePage said in an interview. “Well, I don’t want them, OK? The blue collar guy, the working man, the small business guy. They’re my people. They’ve been my great supporters in 2010 and 2014 and I suspect they’ll be there again for us this year.”

Gov. Janet Mills speaks in Lewiston last month about the history of the federal Clean Water Act. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

When Democratic Gov. Janet Mills took office after LePage termed out, environmental groups rejoiced as the Democrat began reversing LePage’s anti-regulatory policies, took the lead in preparing Maine for climate change and tossed out many of LePage’s industry appointees.

Unlike LePage, who has in the past suggested global warming might be a scientific hoax and vetoed a 2013 study to prepare the state for its impacts, Mills created the Maine Climate Council in her first year in office and committed the state to carbon neutrality by 2045.

It was just one of dozens of environmental bills adopted by Mills and a Democrat-controlled Legislature in her first six months. Others included expansion of solar and offshore wind, improving water quality rules, banning offshore oil and gas drilling, and becoming the first state to ban Styrofoam food containers.

Mills pushed for legislation to reestablish the state’s net metering policy for solar power to ensure that consumers who produce excess electricity from solar panels will be fairly compensated, a policy LePage opposed. As a result, Maine has seen a 300 percent surge in solar capacity.

Maine exceeded its 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction goal, cutting emissions below Maine’s 1990 levels by about 25 percent, and it is on track to meet its goal of using 80 percent renewable resources for electricity by 2030.

“Scientists are telling us that the danger of climate change is code red for humanity,” Mills said last year on the one-year anniversary of the state’s climate action plan. “You can’t get any more serious than that. It is threatening everything that we hold dear. It’s not alarmist to say we’re pretty much out of time.”

Independent Sam Hunkler, a 65-year-old doctor from Beals, is also on the gubernatorial ballot but lacks a record to compare to his rivals. He has said he would generally follow the same “ask Mainers” philosophy to set Maine’s environmental policy as he would for the economy or education.

“I do have ideas about how to protect our environment, but so do many other Mainers,” Hunkler said. “My goal is to bring entities together to discuss the many issues around conserving and protecting our air, water and land while using it in a sustainable fashion.”

The environment is a big issue with Maine voters. It was tied for third with energy costs for top concerns of voters in the spring 2022 Critical Insights on Maine poll – behind the economy and affordable housing, but ahead of inflation, the opioid crisis, the cost of living, unemployment and COVID-19.

That sounds like good news for Mills, but twice as many respondents identified the economy as their top concern as those who said environment or climate change. That total number grows higher when all the inflation, cost of living and unemployment respondents get added in.

Former governor Paul LePage speaks during a news conference in Portland’s Deering Oaks last month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

LePage’s record and his personal grudge against some environmental groups – in 2016, he declared war on the Natural Resources Council of Maine after it worked to defeat a mining bill he wanted – can make it easy to overlook his intermittent environmental wins and Mills’ occasional losses.

In his first year in office, the LePage administration reached a $900,000 settlement with Chevron for a decades-long, 140,000-gallon oil leak into the Penobscot River from its Hampden oil terminal. The state hailed it as the largest environmental penalty it had received in two decades.

“A balance can be achieved between protecting our environment and a prosperous economy,” said John McGough, LePage’s senior campaign adviser, when asked to point out LePage’s environment highlights. “The answer should never be either or, it should always be both.”

Environmental groups note, however, that the settlement was the result of a long negotiation that began before LePage was elected, and that it was announced by Pattie Aho, the former oil lobbyist and LePage’s controversial appointment to lead the state Department of Environmental Protection.

LePage’s other environmental wins tend to focus on unfair competitive advantage and natural resources extraction, like increasing the penalties for illegal elver fishing, and efforts to rebuild Maine’s white-tailed deer population.

His plan to save deer hunting, which once generated $200 million a year in rural Maine, shows how those wins are obscured by other environmental negatives. The effort could have helped LePage earn top marks this fall from a major hunting and fishing group if not for his opposition to Maine’s conservation bond program. Instead, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine gave Mills an A heading in its voter guide.

For Mills, who secured the largest ever single deposit into the Land for Maine’s Future program to protect winter deer habitats, among other things, her environmental stumbling block comes not in the form of a white-tailed deer, but of an iconic Maine lobster and a critically endangered whale.

National environmental groups have gone to court to push the federal government to overhaul lobstering rules to protect the right whale, which is on the brink of extinction. Lobstermen say the rules would sink them, but won’t save the whale, arguing there’s no proof Maine fishing gear has ever killed a right whale.

Whale advocates say there is rarely any rope left on a whale discovered dead from entanglement injuries caused by fishing ropes, and when there is, it’s almost impossible to link back to a fishery. Maine started requiring lobstermen to mark their rope a state-specific color, purple, in 2020.

In spite of receiving millions in political donations from national environmental groups, Mills sides with the lobstermen in this fight, not the whale advocates.

She has testified on the industry’s behalf at regulatory hearings and hired outside lawyers with extensive Endangered Species Act experience to represent Maine in the courts, but has nevertheless been booed at lobster rallies.

That’s partly because Mills has been an outspoken supporter of developing wind power to grow Maine’s renewable energy portfolio, signing the contract for the nation’s first floating offshore wind project and submitting an application for a University of Maine research array of 12 floating wind turbines.

Lobstermen don’t want to give up any fishing territory, and worry about the impacts of both sound and chemical pollution from turbines, repairs and accidents on their resource. In response to their criticism, Mills signed legislation banning offshore wind projects in state waters. But lobstermen remain skeptical.

Lobstermen also cried foul when LePage joined the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition to push for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic despite concerns that oil spills could harm the lobster population. Mills pulled Maine from the coalition when she took office.

Maine farmers, meanwhile, are deeply concerned about contamination from so-called forever chemicals.

Mills has earmarked $100 million to study this issue and help those with tainted drinking wells and fields. LePage agrees the state “owns the issue” because it approved the spreading of tainted sludge.

LePage’s biggest complaint about Maine’s PFAS is the suggestion that farmers whose properties are tainted by these chemicals consider installing solar panels if there is no suitable crop available to grow there. Those farms should be growing food to help keep grocery prices down, he said.

LePage also has argued the Mills administration’s delay in approving a key water quality certificate needed to relicense the Shawmut Dam outside Waterville is putting the needs of fish – in this case, the Atlantic salmon – ahead of  foresters, or the Sappi paper mill.

Mills initially planned to recommend the dam’s removal to help restore endangered Atlantic salmon in one of the few places left they can spawn, but when Sappi said removal would lead to the mill’s closure, Mills changed her tune and said she wouldn’t allow that to happen. The certification is still pending.


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