PORTLAND, Maine — The chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission will retire early — at the end of this year — leaving the governor elected in November with the influential job of appointing two of the regulatory commission’s three members.
Tom Welch, chairman of the PUC, said Wednesday he plans to retire Dec. 31, two years before his term was set to expire in 2017. He said he’s not yet sent a formal notice to Gov. Paul LePage and the decision was driven purely by personal reasons.
“I’m just turning 65, so there’s some significance to that,” he said. “One way of putting it — I’m older now than I thought I would be at 65.”
Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate who represents consumers’ interests in utility regulatory deliberations, said Welch’s early departure will give the governor elected in November a big influence over the state’s energy and telecommunications policy.
“Whoever the next governor is will have a huge amount of influence on how the state tackles telephone policy and how the state deals with the rise in electricity prices that is definitely coming this winter,” said Schneider.
Welch’s resignation will come just before fellow commissioner David Littell’s term is set to expire in March. The change is significant because two votes on the three-member commission can decide a case. Broadly, the commission decides how much Maine residents pay for water, telephone, electricity and natural gas service.
It is now handling a number of significant cases that may not be completed before Welch’s and Littell’s terms expire.
“The entire issue of electric energy costs and expansion of the natural gas pipeline are going to be critical and Tom Welch played a lead role in helping to move that forward and negotiating with the other New England states,” said Sen. John Cleveland, a Democrat from Auburn who co-chairs the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “It will be extraordinarily difficult to replace him with someone with the same amount of experience and expertise.”
Welch said he’s confident the next governor will be able to find a qualified appointee and that the commission’s staff will also play a key role in preserving continuity through the transition.
“If people stayed on commissions until every important issue was resolved, they’d never be able to leave,” Welch joked in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Whoever is appointed will have something of a learning curve, but I have every confidence that the people who come on will do what they need to do.”
Jeff Marks, head of the industry group E2Tech, which recently hosted a gubernatorial forum on energy policy, said Welch’s looming departure leaves big shoes to fill for the next governor.
“It will certainly take out a key player in two ongoing and critical energy issues – natural gas infrastructure and electricity grid modernization and reliability,” Marks wrote. “Tom is arguably one of the most knowledgeable and connected individuals in regional discussions to increase pipeline capacity to deliver natural gas to Maine and the rest of New England.”
The natural gas case stems from a wide-ranging energy bill passed last year. The PUC is considering whether it should buy up to $1.5 billion in natural gas capacity over 20 years through a tariff on the state’s electricity customers.
Welch was one of two Maine appointees to the New England States Commission on Electricity, which has been considering a regional approach to addressing New England’s constraints on natural gas capacity. Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, is the other. Those discussions have been put on hold after Massachusetts stepped away from the process for further study.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission is also set to consider a proposed 25-year contract between Fryeburg Water Co. and Nestle Waters, a complicated case delayed by conflicts of interest that led to Welch and Littell recusing themselves.
A case dealing with Maine’s provider of last resort telephone service will next spring come before the Legislature’s joint energy committee, the makeup of which could also see dramatic changes next year and could be a factor in the process of appointing new commissioners.
“We could lose as much as half of our committee next year through elections and some leaving for leadership positions,” Cleveland said. “It’s going to be a challenge for a group of new legislators appointed to that committee to get up to speed and make a lot of important energy and utility decisions.”
Those two changes leave a lot of uncertainty around who will decide many of the major questions regarding Maine’s energy policy in the next year. It’s a period where energy issues are likely to take the forefront, as power prices are expected again to spike during the winter, due largely to constraints on natural gas pipeline capacity to power plants.
As for the PUC, the next governor would as one of his first acts be able to appoint a replacement for Welch and then in March have the possibility of reappointing Littell or making another selection for that post. The energy committee also exerts a significant influence on that process. It votes on appointees and forwards those recommendations to the Senate. Overturning those recommendations requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate.
“Getting a majority vote of support [in committee] is critical for the appointment,” Cleveland said.
Welch served as chairman of the PUC from 1993 to 2005 and was appointed in April 2011 for his current term that was set to expire in 2017.
He said he has no specific plans for his retirement, but that he expects to stay busy.
“There are some things that I want to do that aren’t work-related, like travel and tending my garden, as it were,” Welch said, noting that his wife is half Australian but they’ve both never traveled there.
He said he’s enjoyed serving on the commission.
“It’s been a real honor and privilege,” Welch said. “And as jobs go, it’s hard to imagine a better one.”