AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Despite increasing pressure from lawmakers and environmental groups, the University of Maine said Tuesday it must keep its proposal for an offshore wind project secret because disclosing details will harm the university's chances for a $46 million federal energy grant.
Lawyers for the university and Maine Aqua Ventus, the umbrella company that includes the university and its partner groups, made the argument in a filing with the state public utilities commission.
UMaine's filing is a response to requests made by Norwegian company Statoil and environmental groups. Some lawmakers have also said that recent revelations about the LePage administration's efforts to explicitly derail Statoil's proposal further demonstrate the need for the university to release the proposal.
"Because of the high profile nature of what the governor has done to Statoil ... I think the (university) should go above and beyond to be transparent," said Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland.
Gov. Paul LePage's administration has pressed for legislation to reopen the competitive bidding process to allow the university to submit a bid, causing Statoil to put its project on hold. The administration opposed Statoil's project because ratepayers would subsidize the high energy costs and said giving the university a shot at a contract was vital in allowing it to compete for an offshore wind project.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that the Republican governor's administration had been working behind the scenes to derail Statoil's proposal. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Access Act, the administration initially floated "a much more aggressive effort to explicitly void" Statoil's agreement by limiting the amount that home and business owners would pay for the project to about half of what Statoil had proposed.
In letters to the commission earlier this month, Statoil and two environmental organizations requested that the UMaine proposal be revealed. The Democratic co-chairs of the state's energy committee also recently requested in a letter to the commission that some details be made public.
"The public deserves to understand what is in the proposal and what is behind the university's mission so that we can have a healthy public debate about the pros and cons of both projects," said Beth Nagusky, the Maine director of Environment Northeast, in an interview. Nagusky, who sent a letter to the commission in conjunction with the Conservation Law Foundation, served as co-chair of the Governor's Ocean Energy Task Force, which created the legislation that led to the request for proposals for an offshore wind project.
But Tony Buxton, the lawyer representing Maine Aqua Ventus, said that releasing the proposal would reveal the university's ideas for how to lower the offshore wind energy costs over time — a key factor in its competition with Statoil and other companies seeking the federal grant.
In the filing, the lawyers wrote that requiring the company to release the proposal would set a dangerous precedent for future bidding processes. In addition, the commission is expected to make a decision on whether to approve its proposal by December — in which case a redacted agreement would be released — meaning it could be made public in a matter of months, they wrote.
But Democratic Sen. John Cleveland, of Auburn, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, of Saco, chairs of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said in a letter to the commission on Friday that the "unique circumstances" of the reopening of the bidding process call for the release of some details.
"We believe this would permit a thorough and robust review of the university's proposal and would increase public confidence in the process and ultimately in the decision that is rendered by the commission," they wrote.
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