Angus King: Energy Profiteer

UPDATE:  I’ve found some video of the debate referenced below.  I’m going to try to cut it up and post it online so you can hear him drone on endlessly about natural gas yourself.

It is no secret by now that critics of Angus King on both the left and the right (though, admittedly more from the right) have gotten a lot of benefit over attacking him for his activities relating to clean energy, specifically wind.

But there is another strange story to be told, also about energy.  This time, it is about natural gas.

King has a lot of very nice things to say about natural gas.  He has gone on endlessly about it on both the stump and in multiple debates.  In one debate in particular (that I’m trying to wrestle up video for), it almost sounds as though he is a Sham-wow style TV pitch man trying to sell natural gas, as he went on and on and on about it for more than three minutes.

Very much reminded me of a certain monorail salesman, sans catchy tune.

It is actually kind of remarkable how often he brings up natural gas, and how long he talks about it once he brings up the subject.  He actually said in one of the debates this year that he believes the United States could entirely break itself of foreign oil within five years, if it simply switched from oil to natural gas.

That is a claim so bold (and so absurd), and he talks about natural gas so often, that you’d think King has some kind of financial stake in natural gas.

Well, you’d be right.

It turns out that King, according to his Senate financial disclosure, is a paid board member of the engineering firm Woodard and Curran.  He is listed on their website as a current member of the board of directors, and last year, he received $25,000 for serving on that board.

How does that connect to natural gas?  Check their website.  Roll that beautiful bean footage:

Woodard & Curran’s staff has been serving the natural gas industry for nearly 40 years with a broad scope of regulatory, environmental, engineering, and litigation support services. Our clients have included local distribution companies, municipal utilities, master meter operators, gas contractors, and transporters of natural gas. With services including gas engineering, site selection and feasibility studies, environmental assessments, planning, permitting, and instrumentation; Woodard & Curran has extensive and varied experience helping utility clients achieve their objectives.

If that wasn’t enough, let me draw the line for you.  Angus King is a paid director of a natural gas engineering firm that specializes in getting government approval for gas projects.

All the more curious, King wasn’t quite so high on natural gas, or hydrofracking (the process by which that gas is produced) in the past.

A year ago in an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald, King had this to say about natural gas and hydrofracking:

The next most likely source is natural gas — which is (currently) cheap and (currently) plentiful and is cleaner than coal or oil, at least in the burning. Today, natural gas is about $4.50 per million British thermal units — a great price. However, less than three years ago, it was $12.60 per million BTUs — and had the price stayed at that level, our dependence on natural gas would have hammered the Maine economy.

And the method of producing much of that gas — called hydrofracking, where millions of gallons of water and a powerful mix of chemicals (we don’t know what they are because the gas industry won’t tell us) are pumped into the ground to fracture the bedrock and release the gas — is being reconsidered as the extent of groundwater contamination and environmental damage becomes more apparent.

Also, is it sensible or prudent to put all our energy eggs into one basket again (natural gas this time), especially when you are dealing with a commodity, like oil, all of which comes from out of state and over which we have no control whatsoever?

Even the least cynical and most forgiving of voters has to be scratching their head at this stunning reversal.

In a vacuum, one could probably write this off as merely a coincidence, or a peculiarity of the complex world wealthy politicos inhabit.  But when married with King’s previous troubles with wind, I see a troubling pattern developing.

Prior to his fetish with natural gas, King was, of course, obsessed with wind.  He called Maine the “Saudi Arabia of wind’ consistently while he was in the wind business.  In the past, he would repeatedly use hyperbole to gain support for wind energy, claiming the increase in oil prices would lead to a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Maine, and saying by 2020 so many people will have fled Maine that we would “replace the governor with a park ranger”.

As he directly benefited from the development of wind, he leaned on his powerful connections to help broker deals to make his wind dream come true.  King used his high profile to press the case for wind, doing a press tour to celebrate the $102 million loan guarantee he received from the federal government.

But when the project received a $33 million grant from the feds, press scrutiny began to heap onto his project, and then suddenly as that criticism grew louder, his dreams of the Senate began to materialize, and he withdrew his financial stake, he grew quiet.

Now, he hardly mentions wind, but goes on lengthy soliloquies about natural gas, another energy sector that he is deeply involved in.

Does King directly profit from his natural gas salesmanship?  An open question.  He is a paid board member for a company that certainly does, and there is no denying that his friends on the board (who also happen to be campaign donors) certainly benefit a great deal from any growth in the natural gas industry.  But what his personal stake is in such growth is unclear, and the relationship – close as it may be – doesn’t prove anything.

The truth is, it is probably small.  There is no way to quantify what a major growth in natural gas would mean for him.  Whatever it is, at this stage, it is probably barely noticeable to a multi-millionaire like King.

But, what the future potential could be were he in a policy making position, is anyone’s guess.  Undoubtedly a great deal higher than today.

What is more clear at this point is that he is directly involved with a company that provides a “broad scope of regulatory, environmental, engineering, and litigation support services” to the natural gas industry, and that he is now on the stump talking up gas like there is no tomorrow.

Think of it like an industry lobbyist running for Senate, going around talking up the industry he was lobbying for.  King was no lobbyist, but I think we can all agree here that he is close enough to the machinery of natural gas advocacy that his being a pitch man for it in a political campaign is inappropriate, self-serving, and wrong.

Voters have always been very uncomfortable with the idea of public officials getting elected and then creating sweetheart deals for their friends once in office, particularly if those friends helped get that person elected.

Were King to be elected, and then become a major force in a dramatic growth of the natural gas industry, it would be viewed – rightly, I believe – as that very kind of crony capitalism, and malignant politics made manifest.

This is a troubling pattern from King, one that seems to continually repeat, and one voters deserve to know about, and ponder before they go into the voting booth.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.