Energy costs and the needs of Maine’s businesses dominated a business and environmental issues forum for 11 gubernatorial hopefuls held April 26 at the Unity Centre for the Performing Arts.

Candidates responded to questions from a panel of four journalists who targeted their questions at groups of three candidates per question.

Represented among the 11 candidates were all four of the Democratic hopefuls — John Richardson had bowed out of the race earlier that day — and five of the seven Republican contenders — Bruce Poliquin and Paul LePage were not at the event. The debate also included two independent candidates, Eliot Cutler and Kevin Scott.

The debate opened with discussion of alternative energy prospects, including wind, nuclear and hydroelectric power, as well as questions about energy transmission. Later, conversation turned to the balance between business and the environment.

Asked how they would support wind power projects while ensuring that public funds were used responsibly, Republican and former Susan Collins Chief of Staff Steve Abbott, Democratic state Senate President Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler each spoke of ensuring transparency in the use of public funds.

Abbott advocated a competitive-bid process.

Mitchell said it was important to remember that the goal was to reduce the carbon footprint, but cautioned that siting wind turbines was a major issue in wind power-generation in Maine.

Cutler advocated a public power authority to keep wind-generated energy in the state.

Many of the questions from the panelists put environmental and energy-production concerns against the backdrop of flagging state revenues. These included how to remove old dams that pose public safety hazards if there’s no money to do so, and whether the state should play a role in preserving land.

On the first question, Republican Bill Beardsley called some dams “very workable.” Independent Kevin Scott saw hydroelectric power as part of a comprehensive energy plan.

On the question of how to improve existing hydroelectric facilities, Scott cited the progress made since the 1970s as evidence that the technology is in the process of improving.

Republican Matt Jacobson said the answer would come from increased revenues. “Every problem gets easier to manage if you create jobs and grow the economy,” he said.

The idea that thriving business and industry would save the environment was echoed by candidates from both parties and independents. Abbott, Beardsley, Scott and Democratic former State Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan each spoke of forestry, paper production or private stewardship of land as important for conservation.

Republican state Senator Peter Mills equated good environmental policy with good business.

Republican Les Otten favored tax incentives to spur alternative-energy production. Asked how he would help Maine businesses while protecting the natural environment, Otten said the state should encourage residents to become independent of number two heating oil by taxing them less, so they could afford to weatherize their homes and upgrade heating systems — something that Otten claimed to have done himself.

Democratic candidate and real estate developer Rosa Scarcelli said she would create a revolving loan fund for Mainers to weatherize their homes. The initiative, she said, would cut energy costs and create thousands of jobs.

Asked if they would support new hydroelectric power facilities, Mills gave an unequivocal “No.” Democrat and former Attorney General Steven Rowe also opposed new hydroelectric facilities.

Three candidates were asked about new nuclear installations. Jacobson’s response was a chummy “Yeah.” The Maine and Company president said nuclear power was safe and cited France as an example of a country that got a large part of its energy from nuclear power, which he said lessened the country’s dependence on foreign oil and provided jobs to its citizens.

Cutler predicted there would be no new nuclear power facilities in his lifetime, citing regulatory issues at the federal level. “Our enthusiasm for nuclear power needs to be restrained with realism,” he said.

Mitchell said she would not support new nuclear facilities until there was a plan for where to put the waste. She offered offshore wind as an alternative to nuclear power, citing the oft-quoted claims that the Gulf of Maine has the potential for offshore wind power generation equivalent to 40 nuclear power plants.

McGowan weighed in on nuclear power after answering an unrelated question to say that he opposed it.

Asked about the federal mandate for lobstermen to abandon float rope, Otten, McGowan and Scarcelli each said they would have fought the mandate had they been governor.

On whether they would support new transmission lines between Quebec and the New England power grid, three candidates gave qualified support. Scarcelli said it would be important for the state to “cut a good deal.”

Rowe echoed Scarcelli’s sentiment, also calling for a good deal.

McGowan said the corridor should have “spurs,” so that Maine power generators could tap in, rather than have the transmission lines simply travel through the state.

Asked how they would resolve the conflict of siting onshore wind turbines along the state’s ridgelines, Beardsley put his faith in the state’s Land Use Regulatory Commission, and questioned the eagerness with which communities have adopted moratoriums on wind developments.

Mills cited the work of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development, saying that the state should “leapfrog” ahead to benefit from offshore opportunities.

“It’s free, if we could just figure out how to capture it,” he said.

The cost of energy in Maine was a recurring sore spot for the candidates at the April 26 forum.

Cutler lamented that Maine industries competed with those in states that have lower energy costs, putting local industries at a disadvantage. As an exception, he cited Backyard Farms, a successful tomato-growing operation in Madison, which he said was able to stay in Maine because Madison had a municipal electric utility.

Scarcelli blamed the deregulation of Maine’s electric industry for the higher rates, saying she would be in favor of “re-regulation.”

The gubernatorial candidates’ forum was sponsored by Unity College and the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce.

Rob Constantine, vice president for college advancement at Unity College, said two additional candidates had been scheduled to participate but were unable to attend.

“I’m pretty confident that our next governor was here,” he said.

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