Reagan Paul: Sears Island May Be the Next Victim of Maine’s Radical Climate Agenda

COMMENTARY

Published in the Maine Wire

JANUARY 10, 2024

Sears Island has long been known as a place of tranquility and home to abundant wildlife, migratory birds, botanical resources, and historical sites. It boasts a wealth of Wabanaki history as well as historical sites dating back to the Revolutionary War. It is also the largest undeveloped, uninhabited, causeway-accessible island on the eastern coast of the United States. This local treasure is important to the local community and is a significant tourist attraction in the area, welcoming thousands of visitors from around the globe every year.

Currently, there is a more sinister reason why Sears Island is gaining attention in the local press again: it could be the next location on the chopping block as a victim of Maine’s radical climate agenda. As the Representative of District 37, which includes Searsport, this issue forefront in the minds of many of my constituents, and I share their concerns.

The Governor’s Energy Office believes that offshore wind must be developed in order for Maine to reach their arbitrary climate and renewable energy goals. This legislative session, LD 1895 An Act Regarding the Procurement of Energy from Offshore Wind Resources” passed, which got the ball rolling on Maine’s push for offshore wind development by means of a floating offshore wind research array project. The Portland Press Herald conceded that a floating offshore wind research array project is too cost prohibitive without a dedicated wind port facility off the coast of Maine, which means that a port must be constructed before the state can even move forward with the research array outlined in LD 1895.

That is where Sears Island comes in.

After surveying the coast of Maine, the Maine Department of Transportation has narrowed its focus down to two potential port locations in the town of Searsport: Sears Island and Mack Point, which is an industrialized parcel utilized for various forms of commerce.

The Maine DOT has said that 100+ acres will be required for this facility to be built. If the port were to be built on Mack Point, the port could be multi-use for wind development, liquid and dry cargo, as well as rail cargo, and the land would have to be leased from Sprague Energy.

600 acres of Sears Island is part of a conservation easement granted to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, while the remaining 340 acres were retained by the State of Maine’s Department of Transportation as a transportation parcel for development purposes. If the port were to be built on Sears Island, 100 acres of the state-owned transportation parcel would be utilized, and unlike Mack Point, this port would be only for offshore wind development.

That is why I submitted a bill to be considered in the second regular session of the legislature that, if passed, would have put the entirety of Sears Island into a conservation easement to protect it from any industrialization effort. In order for bills to be sent to a committee for a public hearing in the second session, bills must be approved by the 10-member legislative council, with a 6-4 Democratic majority. The legislative council rejected my bill initially down party lines 6-4, so upon appeal, I included a letter written by former Green Independent Gubernatorial Candidate, Representative Lynne Williams of Bar Harbor, who was in support of my bill’s efforts to protect Sears Island. One Democratic vote was gained as a result, but with a 5-5 vote, the bill failed once again, and therefore denied a public hearing for Maine residents to voice their concerns. This just reinforced the reality that there is no location that is safe from being placed on the altar of Augusta’s arbitrary and radical climate agenda.

It has been said that the final port location will not be determined until 2024, but that does not seem to be the entire story. Based off of information attained from government documents through a public records request, Sears Island has been indicated as the preferred location for the wind port multiple times, dating as far back as 2021, with plans in part to enable Governor Mills to…”announce a commitment to pursue development of Sears Island as the Renewable Energy Port of the Northeast.” This was 8 months prior to the Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group holding its first meeting. Is the advisory group assembled to make decisions, or to simply rubber stamp the decisions that have already been made? I suppose we are building now and researching later?

Interestingly enough, the Sierra Club of Maine submitted a joint letter to the MDOT in 2022 regarding the proposed project on Sears Island, and urged them to begin a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) scoping process. In anticipation of Sears Island being MDOT’s prime choice for the port location, they pointed out that determining whether Mack Point or Sears Island would be the least environmentally practicable alternative (LEDPA), pursuant to Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act, is not the purview of the MDOT. The US Army Corps of Engineers makes that determination after consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The MDOT should not assume that Sears Island will be the LEDPA until the Army Corps prepares an Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA and conducts a comprehensive Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

It would be hard to believe that Sears Island could ever be seen as the less damaging alternative. I would hope that the MDOT would follow federal law before making a unilateral decision on a port location. An attempt to build an offshore wind port on Sears Island will also undoubtedly generate mass public opposition and open the state to litigation under NEPA and the federal Clean Water Act.

Since Maine has not conducted their own port study yet for this new project, we can look to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory study titled “The Impacts of Developing a Port Network for Floating Offshore Wind Energy on the West Coast of the United States”, which sheds some light on what similar impacts we may be facing if this port project moves forward. In the study, they say that communities that will likely be impacted by the port development face, “diverse health, environmental, educational, economic, and accessibility burdens that could impact how much they benefit from new or expanded ports and job opportunities…” Is this a good investment for Waldo county? The narrative that this project is about bringing “800” jobs to the area for Mainers is rhetoric used to drive emotions.

Based on the pro-union language of LD 1895 (the AFL-CIO called the bill a “homerun”), there are real questions whether Maine’s largest construction employers, which are not unionized, will benefit from the port project. Providing labor union allies with statutorily mandated handouts may send those port jobs to out-of-state union workers in Massachusetts. If you want a preview of what’s to come, take a look at the license plates of the vehicles of those working on solar projects and see how few of them are actually from the State of Maine.

Local leaders in Searsport have admitted that if this port is constructed, there will be adverse effects on the local economy and that jobs will be lost. It would seem that to some, the overwhelming adverse effects of the wind port on the local residents and the community are worth the out-of-state union jobs, a the union donations to political committees that will follow. As a matter of fact, a recent Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) study from the east coast Vineyard Wind Project states that a port upgrade would indeed bring tax revenue and some jobs but also displacement or reduction of fishing opportunities and other ocean sector economies. In addition, the report found potential impacts to habitats, wildlife, increased vessel traffic with air emissions and noise, visual impacts both in the daytime and nighttime, displacement of recreational opportunities and disturbances of cultural resources. Does that sound like a good deal for the residents of Searsport?

You often hear that this project is inevitable but I believe that is disingenuous. A quick look up and down the East Coast would show you numerous wind projects that have failed because they were not economically viable for various reasons. Mind you, these projects were for fixed offshore wind development, not the experimental floating turbines that Maine is developing which have been proven to be 4-6x more expensive than fixed offshore wind. In reality, the State of Maine wants a $600 million port to be constructed to test the financial viability of a research array that is 4-6x more expensive than the other projects that are failing along the East Coast.

It is not a new phenomenon to try to construct a facility on Sears Island. The DOT has attempted to industrialize Sears Island for decades, and if you take a look back to a 1995 report by the EPA titled, “Evaluation of the Significance of Impacts Sears Island Dry Cargo Terminal”, it revealed why the proposed dry cargo port at the time never materialized. In the report they state:

“The Sears Island dry cargo terminal as proposed would irreparably harm the aquatic environment … All three federal environmental agencies believe that the impacts associated with a Sears Island port facility would cause significant degradation of waters in the United States.” (emphasis added)

If it was a bad idea then, wouldn’t it be a bad idea now? Has Sears Island or the ocean surrounding it changed dramatically enough to suggest that constructing a massive wind port on it is no longer an environmental concern? Or has something else shifted to place the target over Sears Island once again? What has changed is the deeply embedded corruption of special interest groups and political agendas of those who hold power in Augusta and across the country.

As a member of the Energy, Utilities, and Technology committee in Augusta, I have seen firsthand how intertwined extreme “environmentalist” groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) are with elected officials who submit this type of damaging legislation. I have seen the lack of transparency and how this bill was admittedly co-drafted by the NRCM and how multiple amendments were accepted which changed the original bill in many ways, all without input from the public and without information provided to our committee before it was voted out to the House and Senate. Both chambers approved the bill which made the devastation of Sears Island possible again.

While Maine legislators may not have been fortunate enough to be provided with an Environmental Impact Statement before being required to vote on this legislation, New Jersey did just that before key votes were cast and found some concerning results: moderate impact to air quality, moderate impact to coastal habitats, major impact to commercial fisheries, moderate impact to cultural resources, moderate impact to fish habitat, moderate to major impact to marine mammals, moderate impact to recreation and tourism, major impact to scenic and visual resources, etc.

BOEM released a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on the Gulf of Maine back in July of this year that focused on sight assessment activities for the floating offshore wind array project. The fascinating thing is what the assessment left out: installation, operation, and decommissioning of the research array, the turbines, or cables that transmit energy to land. They even said that the purpose of the EA was, “to determine whether an environmental assessment is necessary, saying “If the impacts are determined to not be significant, the additional analysis is not necessary.” So, who makes the determination if the impacts are not deemed “significant”? BOEM also said that when they receive a research activities plan from Maine, they will “probably” do an environmental impact statement.

Something here just isn’t right. The necessity for this project to proceed is to supposedly combat climate change as a part of Maine’s renewable energy road map: Maine Won’t Wait. The name is absurd, because Maine can absolutely wait, we just won’t. The climate has been changing since the day the earth started turning, and it will continue to change long after us. There is no climate crisis that justifies that Maine take these extremely damaging actions, as Maine accounts for a mere .000098 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Information found on the State of Maine website even concedes that, “Each year, Maine’s forests sequester an amount of carbon equal to at least 60 percent of the state’s annual carbon emissions, a figure that rises to 75 percent when durable forest products are included”. Since Maine is already nearly carbon neutral, and our miniscule amount of carbon we emit gets nearly captured by our forests naturally, it raises the question: why is Maine pursuing one of the most aggressive climate action plans in the nation?

Big corporations already recognize that their projects do not have a measurable influence on climate change. In the BOEM Vineyard Wind Environmental Impact Statement, they explicitly say there would be, “no collective impact on global warming as a result of offshore wind projects.” It doesn’t stop there. In the “purpose and need” section of the draft environmental impact statement for Revolution Wind, Orstead justified the project on the basis of meeting renewable energy mandates. Meeting a political mandate is rather different from combating climate change. It seems that corporate profits and political expediency appear to be providing the impetus for offshore wind development.

If logic prevailed, then Sears Island would never even have been considered as a potential site location for the offshore wind port. The studies about the mass devastation this port would bring to the island, the ocean, fishing industries and the surrounding communities do not seem to faze the special interests pushing this project forward. Dr. Habib Dagher, one of the special interests behind the drafting of LD 1895, who is involved in the development of floating offshore wind at the University of Maine remarked, “All of us would like to think that we can have renewable energy with zero impact on the environment — as you know, it’s not possible, right?” There is a callousness in regards to Sears Island that should alarm every Mainer. It’s also worth noting that Dagher is the highest paid taxpayer-funded employee in the state of Maine, earning more than $594k in 2022 through the University of Maine System thanks, in part, to his advocacy for wind power.

I have been very transparent about my opposition to any form of offshore wind development in the state of Maine as I believe it would be a manmade ecological disaster, but I would hope that even those who have a different opinion on offshore wind would see the value in protecting the gift of Sears Island from being destroyed forever.

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