Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts in the Legislature to limit renewable power purchases and energy-efficiency spending in Maine suffered a serious blow Tuesday when his energy policy director resigned.
Kenneth Fletcher, who spearheaded LePage’s initiatives for the past two years, will be replaced by a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
Patrick Woodcock, of Bangor, most recently was Snowe’s senior adviser for energy and environment issues in Washington, D.C.
Woodcock faces a challenge succeeding Fletcher, a former legislator from Winslow who served on the energy committee and developed a good working relationship with lawmakers as he promoted LePage’s sometimes controversial policies.
LePage is poised to reintroduce controversial efforts in the new Legislature that would curtail renewable power purchases and energy-efficiency spending. The governor says those mandates contribute to higher electricity costs and hurt Maine’s economy. Supporters say wind power and conservation programs create jobs and lessen Maine’s dependence on imported energy.
LePage was unsuccessful in making changes in the last session, despite a Legislature controlled by fellow Republicans. Fletcher, who previously had served eight years on the committee that deals with energy issues and was the ranking Republican member, acted as an important bridge between the governor and lawmakers.
Without Fletcher, LePage will face an uphill battle in a Legislature that Democrats now dominate. Although he had deep background with national energy issues, Woodcock isn’t known widely in the State House.
“I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll say he has tough shoes to fill, in terms of Ken Fletcher,” said Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.
Hobbins is the incoming House chairman of the energy and utilities committee, and he served previously as the committee’s Senate chairman, with Fletcher.
“I wish Patrick Woodcock well,” Hobbins said. “I don’t know him, but I’m sure we’ll get to know him pretty well over the next two years.”
In a phone interview, Woodcock said he would start the job on Monday.
“I’m excited about this new challenge,” he said.
Woodcock is from Hampden and is a 2004 Bowdoin College graduate. While working for Snowe, he was the primary adviser on energy and environmental issues relating to committee work on the Senate Finance Committee as well as the Commerce Committee. Previously, he was the assistant to the legislative director and worked with the senior adviser on climate change during consideration of the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
Fletcher’s departure was not unexpected. He had hinted to colleagues that he planned to retire before the new legislative session. Woodcock said he had worked closely with Fletcher and learned of his plans while exploring job opportunities in Maine. Today is his last day in Snowe’s office, as her term ends.
Before LePage asked him to direct the energy office, Fletcher had worked as a consultant providing managerial and technical expertise to a variety of companies throughout the United States, including Huhtamaki Foodservices, Inc., Madison Paper Corp. and Wausau-Mosinee Paper Corp.
Fletcher said in a written statement that he appreciated the opportunity to have worked with the administration. “Governor LePage has clearly articulated the importance of lowering electricity prices while creating options for residents and businesses to control their total energy costs,” he said.
Fletcher’s departure is a loss for the state, according to Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents papermakers and other large electricity customers in the Industrial Energy Consumer Group.
Fletcher worked over the past two years to help get low-cost natural gas to more people in Maine, Buxton said. He convened a group of natural gas utilities and brainstormed ideas to expand gas pipelines in Maine.
“Someone needs to pick up where Ken left off,” Buxton said. “Because he worked in a paper mill, he knew how much natural gas meant to the Maine economy.”
Fletcher had a lot of credibility with lawmakers, Buxton said, and that helped him present LePage’s policies to skeptics. Buxton noted that Fletcher voted in favor of the state’s renewable energy policies when he was in the Legislature, and then had to oppose them as LePage’s representative.
“Ken carried out the governor’s energy policies, whether he agreed with them or not,” Buxton said. “He was an honest broker.”
Woodcock said he shared Fletcher’s desires to expand natural gas and would work aggressively to make that happen. He also said he’d seek ways to move beyond disputes about renewable-energy policy, in the interest of lowering energy costs for homes and businesses.