U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told a Portland crowd Wednesday morning that he’s optimistic about the state’s future, but described what he considered the five “most serious long-term challenges” standing in the way of Maine’s future prosperity.
As the keynote speaker at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Eggs & Issues breakfast event, King also described, in some of the cases, what he believes the state must do in the coming years to overcome those challenges.
Some of these challenges also resonate in Portland, in particular.
In what the senator considered an ascending order of seriousness, the five top challenges facing Maine are:
1. Aging and incomplete infrastructure
King said the federal Clean Water Act spurred many municipalities in Maine to build sewage treatment facilities in the 1970s, but now those facilities are between 40 and 50 years old.
“They’re going to require rebuilding, and it’s going to cost a lot of money,” he told the morning chamber audience at Holiday Inn By the Bay.
Here in Portland, this strikes a nerve. The city is in the midst of a 40-year stretch in which it has or will spend at least $275 million working on sewage infrastructure in an effort to reduce the amount of effluent discharged annually into the bays and harbors.
But while some infrastructure is getting old, some hasn’t even been built yet elsewhere in the state, he said. King reiterated the call for expanding broadband internet to the most rural corners of Maine.
“How do you ever attract a business to a community that doesn’t have broadband?” he asked. “How do you attract people to a community that doesn’t have broadband? If you were looking at a house and the real estate agent said, ‘It’s great, but you’ll never be able to get broadband here,’ would you really consider buying it? … That would be like saying, ‘Everything else is great, but you can’t have running water here.'”
2. Climate change is killing shellfish and driving lobsters away
King acknowledged that Maine lobstermen are enjoying record hauls, but warned that the lobsters being caught in the Gulf of Maine today were the crustaceans that were south of here yesterday.
“There are now practically no lobsters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” he said. “The center of gravity in the industry is moving north and east. … If that continues, we’re not talking about Stonington and Eastport, we’re talking about Nova Scotia.”
The senator added that another of Maine’s seafood industries — shellfish — is suffering because of the increased acidity of ocean water, which threatens to dissolve larva and weaken shells.
Both issues are explained quite accessibly in the well-shared animations below:
King did note that there’s economic opportunity, especially for Portland, to be found in climate change, however. The melting of the polar ice caps, while catastrophic in a number of ecological ways, does open up northern international shipping routes, and Maine is primed to capitalize.
The Portland Press Herald reported recently that container shipments through Portland have already increased by a whopping 1,300 percent since 2011, a jump attributable to the arrival and expansion of Icelandic shipping company Eimskip here.
3. Lack of diversity in Maine energy sources
King said he’s not overly concerned about energy costs in Maine — commonly cited as a business deterrent by Gov. Paul LePage, although the senator didn’t mention him specifically — but rather the diversity of energy sources here.
“Maine has the lowest electricity costs between here and Pennsylvania,” King said. “When you go further south, you have coal, which heretofore has been the cheapest energy source in the country.”
But the senator said that while the state benefits from prevalence and relatively low cost of natural gas, relying too heavily on it would be dangerous.
(Of note, LePage has also been a proponent of natural gas expansion in Maine and has repeatedly threatened to run against King for his Senate seat in 2018. Although King never mentioned LePage by name Wednesday morning, you can see the potential campaign issues coming into a little bit of focus here.)
King said that while New England enjoys a price of about $2.20 per Mcf (a unit of measure denoting the volume of 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas), in Japan the cost for the energy source is $14 per Mcf.
“That differential should scare us,” the senator said. “The cost of natural gas is low now, but what happens when the price goes up?”
King urged Mainers to be more aggressive about expanding offshore wind, solar energy and other sources to provide a buffer against the potential rise in natural gas prices.
“It’s worth some [investment] to have diversity of resources so you’re protected against that,” he said.
For what it’s worth, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that about a third of Maine’s electricity generation comes from natural gas, while about 60 percent comes from what are considered renewable sources, primarily hydroelectric and biomass plants.
4. The fate of the Great North Woods
No, King wasn’t talking about whether or not to establish a national monument or national park up there, at least not in this case.
He was talking about Maine’s forest products industry, which has seen five paper plants close within the last three years.
The senator said Maine’s not the only place affected by declining paper demand and emerging technologies. Over the last 15 years, he said, 126 paper mills across the U.S. have closed down.
So what do we do?
“We need to be thinking about what we can do with fiber other than making paper,” King said.
Mainers should look into nanocellulose — a wood fiber-based material that can be used in a wide range of products, like cosmetics and computer components — or glue-laminated wooden building materials, he said.
The key, King argued, is for Maine to bring those processing plants (and jobs) here, not send wood fibers off to be processed into new products elsewhere.
5. The aging work force and population decline
This is something we here at the Bangor Daily News, among others, has been harping on for quite some time.
“We have a negative demographic time bomb on our hands,” King told the Portland audience.
In case you missed it, the Maine Department of Labor expects to see about 109,000 jobs emptied out over the next 15 years or so by the mass retirement of Baby Boomers and lack of younger workers coming of age to replace them in the work force.
“How old is Maine? We’re so old, our junior senator is 72,” King joked self-deprecatingly.
The only way Maine will overcome that work force gap is by attracting new residents from other states or other countries, he said, and the good news is, teleworking trends allow many people to work from wherever they want. And Maine is well-known for offering a high quality of life.
“We have to be welcoming to people from all over, whether that’s from Tennessee or Tanzania,” he said.