Gov. Paul LePage is nominating his top lawyer to serve on the Maine Public Utilities Commission, an agency that plays a key role in the energy matters that lie at the heart of the governor’s policy priorities.

LePage will nominate Carlisle McLean, who became his chief legal counsel in 2013. Before that, she practiced environmental, land use and climate strategy law with Preti Flaherty from 2005 to 2011. Previously, she worked on law and policy issues at the Yale Center for Environmental Policy and the New York State Office of Attorney General, among other places.

In an interview Thursday with the Portland Press Herald, McLean said her biggest challenge, if confirmed for the $121,388-a-year post, will be to get a handle on rising electric rates.

“We have an energy crisis upon us,” she said. “It continues to challenge the Legislature and regulators in other New England states, as well.”

McLean’s nomination comes as electric rates for business customers are rising steeply, and rates for many homeowners are expected to go up in March. The PUC has warned midsize businesses served by standard-offer electricity supply that rates could soar 130 percent.

At the root of the problem is the shortage of natural gas pipeline capacity serving New England’s gas-fired power plants, which generate half the region’s electricity. LePage is an outspoken supporter of expanding pipelines, saying it will cut the cost of fuel for generations. A case currently before the PUC that seeks to charge ratepayers up to $75 million a year to expand capacity will be an early test of how closely the commission hews to the governor’s energy priorities.

McLean said Thursday that she doesn’t view the PUC as a policy-making agency, but rather one that responds to legislative and regulatory directives.

McLean, who will turn 37 in March, earned her juris doctor/master of environmental management degrees from Pace University School of Law and Yale University School of Forestry. Her undergraduate degree is from Bates College in Lewiston.

On a personal note, McLean said her 1980s-era home in Cumberland reflects how Mainers adapt to changing energy markets. Her family relies on a pellet stove, oil burner, direct-vent propane heater and wood-burning fireplace to stay warm. On the road, she transports her young family in an all-wheel drive Mazda CX-5, a fuel-efficient crossover.

Asked why she wanted the job, she said it would allow her to use her experience in an area important to the state. The PUC has a “huge responsibility,” she said, because its actions have a tangible impact on all residents.

Although Maine’s overall electric rates are the lowest in New England, LePage has long contended that rates above the national average stifle business expansion. His frustration with the issue, and with renewable energy projects that he blames in part for high rates, surfaced during his inauguration on Wednesday. In an unusual move, he took a swipe at the PUC, even though he had appointed two of the three commissioners during his first term.

“We need a Public Utilities Commission that concentrates on affordable energy for all Mainers,” he said, “not just for the rich subsidized investors and environmentalists.”

McLean declined on Thursday to comment on the governor’s remarks, except to say that she shares his wider vision for reduced rates.

With his high-profile remarks, LePage was giving credence to a perception that the commission is meant to play an advocacy role. However, by law the panel’s mission is to regulate electric, gas, telephone and water utilities. It also is charged with ensuring access to safe and reliable services at “just and reasonable” rates.

Following nomination by the governor, candidates are reviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Utilities and Energy and confirmed by the full Senate. They serve for staggered six-year terms.

Although the biases of some commissioners become clear in time, their actions – like those of judges – are bound by law. PUC hearings function like court proceedings, informed by public testimony, questioning and discussion. In some instances, commissioners can subpoena witnesses and records. The commission makes all final decisions by a public vote.

The agency also can initiate investigations and respond to legislative directives and study requests. It has a staff of lawyers, financial analysts, engineers and other experts to do the work.

But the PUC’s mission has become more complex over the past 15 years, especially for energy matters, since the state’s electric industry was restructured to encourage competitive power suppliers. Restructuring put the PUC in charge of conducting auctions for standard offer electricity supply, soliciting bids for long-term electricity contracts and investigating renewable energy proposals, among other things. The three commissioners can decide, through their votes, whether billion-dollar transmission lines get built, or multi-million dollar power contracts get awarded.

These decisions influence what people and businesses pay for electricity. So in an era of rising rates, the PUC becomes a natural target for disgruntled residents and politicians.

Last week, one of LePage’s key allies in the Legislature, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, told the Press Herald he would introduce a bill aimed at reducing the subsidies available to renewable energy projects because they add to electric rates. He suggested the PUC should set a threshold above which projects shouldn’t receive subsidies.

Among the businesses most affected by actions at the PUC are the two largest utilities, Central Maine Power and FairPoint Communications. Spokesman for both companies declined to comment Thursday on McLean’s nomination.

One lawmaker on the committee that handles utility issues said he regards McLean as capable and not overly partisan.

“She’s a very bright young lady,” said Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden. “I think she’ll bring something to the PUC and I think it will be positive.”

Dunphy expects McLean’s main challenges to include lowering natural gas prices for power generation, as well as ruling on lingering questions over the relationship between companies that own both generation and transmission assets, an issue before the PUC in a new wind power project.

The executive vice president of an environmental group that opposes natural gas pipeline expansion said McLean’s record in the governor’s office suggest she won’t be driven by ideology.

“She’s a thoughtful person,” said Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation. “In her role, she hasn’t generated a lot of heat.”

The nomination also sets the stage for a broader change on the commission this year.

McLean is being nominated because of an unplanned vacancy. Last fall, PUC Chairman Tom Welch announced that he would retire at the end of 2014, two years before his term expired.

Also set to open up this year is the seat held by David Littell, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Littell’s term expires in March.

The third commissioner, Mark Vannoy, was renominated by LePage in 2013. On Dec. 30, LePage appointed Vannoy chairman to replace Welch, although that action was only made public on Thursday.

Patrick Woodcock, who heads the governor’s energy office, is considered a leading candidate to fill Littell’s seat. If McLean is confirmed by the Senate and Woodcock is nominated and confirmed this spring, all three PUC commissioners will be LePage nominees.

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