On Thursday the Maine Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee held a public hearing on a proposal to pave the way for the development of offshore wind infrastructure in the Gulf of Maine, including the construction of a coastal manufacturing facility that would build the offshore floating wind turbines
Lawmakers also considered Thursday Rep. Tiffany Strout’s (R-Harrington) LD 1884, a bill that would block offshore wind developments.
In recent years, the prospect of filling the Gulf of Maine with hundreds of wind turbines has taken on an air of inevitability, with environmental groups, industry groups, and well-paid lobbyists pouring millions of dollars into political pressure campaigns and ad campaigns designed to build support for the project.
Unions, construction companies, investment companies, and lobbyists are all lining up to secure their share of what could be one of the largest taxpayer-funded projects in the history of the state.
Most of the activity during Thursday afternoon’s public hearing centered around LD 1895, a bill proposed by Sen. Mark Lawrence (D-York) that would expand offshore wind power in the Gulf of Maine.
The bill is cosponsored by nine Democratic State Senators and Representatives.
Sen. Lawrence’s bill would direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) to encourage the development of extraterritorial wind power projects in the Gulf of Maine, mandate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) principles for an offshore wind power port project, create environmental monitoring standards, and ensure that any port project use agreements favorable to labor unions.
LD 1895 also directs the MPUC to solicit contracts for wind power projects, with the first solicitation to happen no later than June 1, 2025, and each subsequent solicitation required to be within two years of the previous one.
Lawrence’s bill prescribes rigid requirements for these contracts, one of them being that any applicants for offshore wind power contracts must demonstrate that they have executed or will execute a “labor peace agreement” with a union to represent employees working for and providing services on the project.
This requirement is sometimes also known as a Project Labor Agreement (PLA). Such agreements are used to ensure that taxpayer-funded construction projects are steered to unionized labor.
Jackson Parker, Chairman and CEO of Reed & Reed, a 95-year old Maine construction company that is 100 percent employee-owned, testified against Lawrence’s bill during Thursday’s hearing.
Parker testified that a union-sponsored PLA for any new wind power project contracts would exclude 90% of Maine construction workers from working on the projects, and none of the 455 wind turbines currently in Maine were constructed under a PLA.
“Maine Biz Magazine lists Maine’s largest construction companies and you have to get all the way down to #12 before you find the one and only union company on the list,” Parker said.
Parker warned that the PLA requirement in LD 1895 would lead to out-of-state contractors working on the offshore wind power projects who will bring their own employees with them, creating no additional jobs for Maine’s construction companies.
“How could limiting competition by excluding over 90% of Maine construction workers lead to lower costs and be in the interests of Maine ratepayers? It doesn’t,” Parker said.
Another requirement the bill proposes is that any wind power project contractor must have a diversity, equity and inclusion plan.
The plan must explain “how the wind project will provide employment and contracting opportunities for people of color, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, women, veterans, Maine residents, members of federally recognized Indian tribes and existing workers in industries directly affected by offshore wind power projects.”
Celina Cunningham, Deputy Director of the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO), testified neither for nor against LD 1895.
While the GEO supports offshore wind projects as an important opportunity for Maine, Cunningham cited concerns that Lawrence’s bill did not align with the goals and methods of the GEO’s February 2023 Offshore Wind Roadmap.
The GEO representative said that LD 1895 was overly prescriptive and inflexible with respect to the bill’s requirements for contractors.
These requirements are unlikely to reduce the cost of offshore wind projects and would restrict Maine’s competitive advantage in contract negotiations, Cunningham said.
Although Cunningham claimed that tribal representatives had been invited to have a seat at the table in development of the Offshore Wind Roadmap, one tribal leader claimed otherwise.
“I was never asked to be part of the offshore wind energy committee, or board, if that’s what it’s called. I don’t believe the tribe was consulted with properly if at all,” said William “Billy” Nicholas, Chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township.
“I’m not aware of an offer to be on a board or committee. If there was email invites, I’m not aware of it,” Nicholas said.
Rep. Aaron Dana, also of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, testified before the committee against LD 1895.
Rep. Dana said that offshore wind projects would be devastating to the tribe’s cultural heritage and way of life, saying that his tribal communities were never consulted on the bill until a few days before the hearing.
“Our ancestors have fished, hunted and gathered along the coast for 1000s of years, and these activities continue to be an essential part of our livelihoods and our cultural practices,” Dana said. “It is undeniable that the development of the offshore wind energy will threaten these traditions and way of life.”
Nichols said Dana’s comments reflected his own view of the offshore wind deliberations.
Before Cunningham finished testifying on behalf of the governor’s office, she was asked to come to a future work session with evidence that the tribes had been offered an opportunity to participate in deliberations over wind power development.
Lawmakers on the committee also considered Thursday a bill to block all offshore wind development.
Rep. Tiffany Strout’s (R-Harrison) proposed bill, LD 1884, would prohibit state agencies, municipalities, or other political subdivisions of the State from authorizing construction of offshore wind turbines in state-owned submerged lands, as well as in territorial or federal waters.
“When we talk about helping to slow the global warming process we need to think about all the alternatives, not just the agenda of the day, or how the profits allotted to individuals or the lobbyists,” Rep. Strout said in a press release prior to Thursday’s hearing.
“I feel there are much better ways to proceed with production of energy and cutting down on the use of fossil fuels besides completely destroying the Gulf of Maine,” Strout said.
The bill would also instruct Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the MPUC, and the Department of Environmental Protection to draft legislation that is in accordance with the prohibition of offshore wind power projects.
Kristan Porter, the President of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, testified in favor of Strout’s LD 1884.
“Erecting hundreds of offshore wind turbines taller than Boston’s Prudential tower that sit on floating platforms the length of a football field is an industrialization of the Gulf of Maine,” Porter said.
Porter went on to say that expansion of wind power would threaten the “wildlife, habitat, commercial and recreational fisheries, and a way of life that has sustained thousands of Maine families for more than a century.”
[RELATED: Mills signs offshore wind ban amid lingering skepticism from fishermen]
Gov. Janet Mills has previously supported legislation prohibiting new offshore wind projects after facing pressure from Maine lobstermen.
In July of 2021, Governor Mills signed LD 1619 into law, a bill that prohibited new offshore wind projects in State waters extending three miles from shore, where up to 75 percent of Maine’s lobster fishing occurs.
Rep. Strout’s bill would expand this prohibition to apply to federal and territorial waters in the Gulf of Maine.
“Maine is uniquely prepared to grow a strong offshore wind industry, create good-paying trades and technology jobs around the state, and reduce our crippling dependence on fossil fuels,” Mills said in 2021 regarding LD 1619.
“This legislation cements into law our belief that these efforts should occur in Federal waters farther off our coast through a research array that can help us establish the best way for Maine to embrace the vast economic and environmental benefits of offshore wind,” Mills said.
Last week Mills released a spending package containing her budget initiatives for Fiscal Years 2024-2025 which included the allocation of $12 million in investments for “Offshore Wind Port Preparation.”
The GEO not coming down firmly on either side of the debate raises doubts on whether Mills will support the passage of LD 1895, but it’s clear she will support some iteration of an offshore wind power project.
The open question is whether the benefits of such a project will be reaped primarily by out-of-state union workers or Maine’s employee-owned construction companies.
Gov. Mills has historically not been an advocate for PLAs, according to sources in the construction industry, so language forcing the wind power port project to benefit primarily union labor may become a sticking point in debates between the executive branch and legislative leaders.