Maine’s pulp and paper industry is strongly supporting a LePage administration proposal to reduce some anti-smog regulations affecting new and newly refitted industrial plants.

In a July 30 letter from its attorney and lobbyist, Dixon Pike of Pierce Atwood, the Maine Pulp and Paper Association says its members strongly oppose the existing rules because they “will not address an environmental problem.”

“This puts Maine mills at a competitive disadvantage when attracting capital investments and selling products with no reasonable environmental justification,” Pike wrote, adding that this is “a nonsensical result.”

The Department of Environmental Protection is seeking federal approval to change Maine’s air pollution plan under the federal Clean Air Act — a move that critics say would undermine a 13-state agreement credited with achieving smog reductions in the Northeast.

The DEP’s proposal would end a requirement that new or refitted plants must meet the most stringent emission standards, known as the “lowest achievable emission rate.”

Also, the proposal would end a requirement that such plants have to compensate for their emissions by buying  “offsets” on a regulated market.

The proposed change, which must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was to have been submitted without a public hearing after the public comment period concluded Tuesday. But on Monday, three environmental groups and several legislators made formal requests for a hearing, and the DEP must comply under federal law.

The measure will benefit Maine’s pulp and paper industry because most plants are in the midst of or seeking to convert their power source from oil to natural gas, Maine Pulp and Paper Association president John Williams told the Press Herald.

“It’s great for them economically because it’s a much cheaper fuel, but it’s also good environmentally because gas has a lot fewer emissions than fuel oil,” he said.

The industry estimates that the present requirement to buy pollution offsets and meet the “lowest achievable emissions rates” could add $2 million or more to the costs of such a conversion.

Williams notes that such conversions will likely improve air quality, but because they represent “major modifications” under the Clean Air Act, they prompt the stringent regulations.

In the letter drafted by Pierce Atwood, the industry asserts that the regulations “pose a significant economic hurdle … without any corresponding environmental justification.” Echoing the argument in the DEP’s proposal, they note that because Maine currently meets smog and ozone standards and is downwind from the rest of the country, the requirements serve no purpose.

Gov. Paul LePage said in a letter Wednesday that his administration has also been contacted by developers interested in building new wood pellet mills, but the existing air emission rules could add $1 million to the cost of a pellet mill project.

LePage did not identify any of the developers, but one company likely to benefit from the changes is Thermogen Industries, a New Hampshire-based manufacturer of wood pellets, which in February announced its intention to build a  $120 million wood pellet plant in Eastport, employing 75.

The company’s spokesman, Scott Tranchemontagne, a contracted public relations consultant, said he was personally unaware of the Maine DEP proposal, and that company officials who might have knowledge of the issue are on vacation and unreachable this week.

LePage’s letter was addressed to two Democratic legislative leaders, House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond, who sharply criticized the DEP proposal in a letter of their own on Tuesday and called for a public hearing on the topic.

LePage, a Republican, said the two previous governors, John Baldacci and Angus King, had also amended clean air standards. LePage contended that Eves and Alfond were setting up a false choice between environmental protection and economic prosperity. “My administration will continue to both protect our environment and grow our economy,” LePage wrote.

LePage’s DEP commissioner, Patricia Aho, represented the pulp and paper association in 2006 and 2008, SAAPI Fine Paper in 2006, and Verso Paper in 2008 and 2009, according to state disclosures. She was a lobbyist for Pierce Atwood until joining the administration in early 2011.

Critics say the changes endanger Maine because they will undermine a key 13-state regional agreement that has reduced pollution in upwind states that would otherwise be falling out on Maine.

The compact, the Ozone Transport Region, was created by Congress in 1990 as part of a set of key revisions to the Clean Air Act. Maine agreed to tougher pollution standards within the state as part of an informal deal to get the densely populated upwind states that were responsible for much of our smog to do the same.

“The possible withdrawal by Maine from thee regulations should not be taken lightly,” says Dallas Burtraw, a national expert on incentive-based environmental protection at Resources for the Future, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “Withdrawal may give some economic advantages to some businesses in Maine, but the coalition among the states is delicate and going forward is balancing a lot of trade-offs between environmental costs and economic advantage.”

“This is a short-run decision, but the relationship that exists among the states in the coalition is meant to be a long one,” Burtraw said, adding the effort has delivered reduced costs while improving the environment.