In the wake of the Associated Press report about Gov. Paul LePage’s administration aggressively trying to derail Statoil’s offshore wind development project in the Gulf of Maine, I wrote today about how that may affect the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s evaluation of the University of Maine’s proposed offshore wind project.
One thing I didn’t have room to delve into, however, is that UMaine’s proposal is currently confidential, a fact some are disputing given it was public money that supported the research and development behind the project.
Environment Northeast and the Conservation Law Foundation have both requested that the proposal be made public, and on Friday, Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, co-chairs of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, sent a letter to the PUC requesting that at least some of the proposal be made public.
“We understand that portions of the application may justify confidentiality, such as commercial proprietary information, however, in light of the unique circumstances under which the supplemental request for proposals was issued and our support of the fundamental principles of a transparent government, we do not support the decision to allow the entire proposal to remain confidential,” the letter reads.
In a phone interview, Sen. Cleveland said they’re not trying to harm the process, they’re trying to help it.
“I think it would help build confidence in the process and help the public understand the conclusion the PUC will ultimately come to,” he said.
Jake Ward, UMaine’s vice president of innovation and economic development, points out two facts he says are being overlooked: UMaine is not acting alone in this project, and the university’s research and innovations concerning its offshore wind technology are already public knowledge.
The entity that technically submitted a proposal to the PUC is not UMaine. It’s a company called Maine Aqua Ventus, which is a collaboration between Cianbro; Emera, owner of Bangor Hydro Electric Power Co.; and Maine Prime Technologies, a for-profit startup the university created to represent its interests in the technology.
While the University of Maine’s research was certainly funded in part by public dollars, all of that research has been published in the past in the media and trade journals, Ward said.
The only part of the proposal that is truly confidential is how those pieces are tied together “to make a business case,” Ward said.
Companies like Maine Aqua Ventus are allowed to assert confidentiality whenever they file something with the PUC, according to Tom Welch, the commission’s chairman. But the commission does have the final say in the matter.
He called it a “tough balancing act” to determine how much of a company or organization’s proposal should be public versus confidential for competitive reasons.
Welch said Monday that the commission would decide in the next few weeks how much of Maine Aqua Ventus’ proposal it believes should be made public.
“This is often something resolved with discussion and negotiation rather than coming out of the blue and saying these things are confidential, but ultimately it’s the commission’s decision,” Welch said.