Monday, December 9, 2013
AUGUSTA -- Kennebec Valley municipal and business leaders prodded for action, but still the administration stood firm: Gov. Paul LePage wasn't publicly taking sides in central Maine's two-company natural gas war.
GAS IMPASSE: A still image from a video posted Tuesday on the website of Summit Natural Gas shows work crews placing and welding a 6-inch high-pressure steel pipeline in Lake of the Ozarks region, Missouri, which will serve 10 towns and about 4,000 customers. An appeals panel has found the state erred when solicited bids for a natural gas pipeline project in central Maine, awarding the bid to Central Maine Power Co.-affiliated Maine Natural Gas over Summit Natural Gas.
Image courtesy of Summit Natural Gas
However, LePage's in-house attorney, about to become a judge, was working behind the scenes and criticizing two state employees in emails this summer. Tension mounted among top state and administration officials about the handling of the natural gas bidding and public comments about it.
The state employee in charge of the pipeline request for proposal had a "bureaucratic attitude," Dan Billings, the governor's chief counsel, wrote to staff members.
Billings also wrote Maine's attorney general, saying he was "surprised" that Augusta Mayor William Stokes, also the deputy attorney general in charge of that office's Criminal Division, was asking LePage to get involved personally with the selection of a state contract.
This picture of the office's inner workings on the natural gas issue comes from emails and letters obtained recently by the Kennebec Journal through a public records request.
It comes at a critical time for the future of natural gas in the region. The Maine Bureau of General Services decided in June to accept a bid by Maine Natural Gas, a Central Maine Power Co.-affiliated company, to build a pipeline from Windsor to serve state facilities in the Augusta area and expand as demand warranted. That bid award was thrown out last week by a state appeals panel, which said the review process was unfair and illegal.
Summit Natural Gas of Maine, the losing bidder, which had appealed the decision, pitched a much larger investment -- a $150 million project extending north through a dozen communties, up to Madison, employing around 435 and serving 15,000 customers within three years.
Summit officials say their proposal would hinge on serving anchor manufacturing customers, while also linking to schools, hospitals and some residential areas.
The Maine Natural Gas proposal made a far smaller initial promise: $19.3 million for a project serving only state facilities on both sides of the Kennebec River in Augusta. The firm said it would create about 40 jobs.
Top Kennebec Valley business and municipal leaders coalesced around Summit -- or at least their larger project proposal -- during the process, including the presidents of the Augusta- and Waterville-based chambers of commerce, Stokes and others. In addition, the Summit project had amassed approval of tax breaks -- intended to help finance the project -- from most of the communities affected by its proposed pipeline route.
The June 20 decision by the Bureau of General Services hit with a thud among local leaders, who saw the Maine Natural Gas proposal as too narrow in scope and the Summit plan as a rare economic boon that shouldn't be passed up.
'I am surprised'
Stokes wrote an email to the governor on June 27, clearly labeled as a letter from him as Augusta's mayor and not in his role of assistant attorney general in charge of criminal prosecutions, imploring LePage to "intervene in the recent decision making an award to Maine Natural Gas."
"While this decision may provide short-term savings for the state," Stokes wrote, "I believe it is short-sighted in the long run and risks missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the entire central Maine region."
The next day, Billings wrote Stokes' boss, Attorney General William Schneider.
"Though it is not directly related to his work for ... the AG's office, I am surprised that someone who works in the AG's office would suggest -- in a letter which is now a public record -- that the governor should directly intervene in the award of a state contract," Billings wrote to Schneider that same day. "As I'm sure you are aware, the state procurement law is intended to prevent exactly what Bill is advocating here."
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