Maine columnist’s question spurs an intense discussion of climate change during governor’s debate

Democrat Janet Mills: “I believe in climate change.” Republican Shawn Moody: “When continents broke off and drifted, you know, we had hundreds of feet of ice on top …”

A moderator and a panelist at Maine’s October 10 governor debate spurred a lively discussion about climate change and renewable energy. Bill Nemitz, a columnist at the Portland Press Herald, kicked the exchange off by asking the candidates whether low prices should be the top priority in producing electricity. Answering first, Democrat Janet Mills appeared to accuse Republican Shawn Moody of being a climate change denier. That prompted follow-up questions from moderator Carol Coultas, business editor at the Portland Press Herald.

Mills said, “I believe in climate change” and “I believe in clean energy,” and called for getting off fossil fuels as soon as possible. Moody appeared to call climate science into question by saying, “When continents broke off and drifted, you know, we had hundreds of feet of ice on top … ” He then said it was “ridiculous” to accuse anyone of being in denial about climate change. Two independent candidates, Alan Caron and Terry Hayes, also had the opportunity to weigh in.

Media Matters is tracking debates in competitive Senate and gubernatorial races and encouraging moderators to ask candidates questions about climate change. So far, only 8 of 39 debates analyzed nationwide have included a climate-related question. See our scorecard.

From the October 15 Maine governor’s debate:

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BILL NEMITZ (PANELIST): We're going to turn now to energy. For the last seven years, Maine's energy policy has been aimed at producing electricity at the lowest cost ahead of other considerations such as local jobs or environmental impact. Is this the policy you would pursue? And why or why not?

JANET MILLS (D): Thanks for the question. I will pursue a policy that weans us off of fossil fuels at the earliest opportunity, including the fossil fuels like coal and oil that are used to generate electricity in Maine. I believe in renewable energy. And, by the way, I believe in climate change. I don't believe the Blaine House should become a home to a climate change denier. I believe in renewable energy. I will work towards that end starting on day one with wind and solar, biomass and pellet stoves. I believe in pursuing those modes as soon as possible. So, in terms of lower rates, ultimately, over the long term, those modes of generating electricity will lower our rates. That's what the research tells us. And I want to continue that research and continue attracting investors, attracting suppliers to Maine, the ones that are now going to New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to do these projects. They should be here in Maine, helping us.

CAROL COULTAS (MODERATOR): Janet, so whom are you referring to as a climate denier?

MILLS: I said the Blaine House should not become home to a climate denier.

COULTAS: And are you identifying a climate denier?

MILLS: I know that Mr. Moody has made the statement that we shouldn't overreact to climate change. And, during the primary, he said he didn't believe in climate change, it was overblown. So I just -- if he's changed his mind, maybe he's changed his mind, but I haven't heard that.

COULTAS: Let's give Shawn a 30-second rebuttal for that.

SHAWN MOODY (R): Thank you, Carol. Thanks for getting that out of Janet, walked around the barn there on that one.

MILLS: I haven't changed my position at all.

MOODY: Well, five years ago, we did the biggest private-public partnership with a conservation organization with a renewable energy project in the state of Maine. Sen. King was at the ribbon cutting. It's on the Maine Audubon campus at Gilsland Farm. So we have a renewable energy company that produces energy on that campus. Just one more thing please, Carol. I've spoken, the keynote speaker for Maine Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, ReVision Energy. We have an incredible reputation in regards to renewable energy and protecting our environment.

COULTAS: So when it comes your turn for this question, I think we have to give you a little bit less than a minute, since you went over that 30-second rebuttal.

MILLS: Can I ask if he believes that climate change is real?

COULTAS: You didn't hear an answer.

MILLS: I did not hear an answer.

COULTAS: Would you take 15 more seconds? What do you really think?

MOODY: When continents broke off and drifted, you know, we had hundreds of feet of ice on top --

MILLS: You can remember that? He's older than he looks.

MOODY: Really, for anyone to say, in this day and age, that anyone is in denial about climate change is just such a ridiculous statement. Does it even bear a response?

MILLS: It's not what you said last week. That's not what you said last week at the Fishermen's Forum, I'm sorry.

MOODY: Why would someone have a renewable energy project, seriously ...

ALAN CARON (I): Let’s get some other people in this conversation.

COULTAS: We're going to come back to this topic, so let’s just let that lie. And Terry, would you like to answer the question, and do you need a refresher of what the question is?

TERRY HAYES (I): I think I'm good on what the question was.


HAYES: So I want to frame it slightly differently for you though. We have the least expensive power north of Pennsylvania. How many of you knew that? You know, we're in a region, we function in a region as part of a bigger whole, OK? We're making strides. We've kind of been held back a bit because folks been putting their thumb on the scale, one way or the other. I want the private sector to help figure this out. I think we have to leave our minds open to every opportunity -- every opportunity -- and I think we're looking at primarily private investment and encouraging that. I don't want to pick the winner as your next governor. I want the private sector to figure that out. And I want to explore, from this perspective, if people are building things and putting things together and manufacturing them in Massachusetts or in New York, and our power's cheaper, how do we get them here? You know, how do we start up and use that difference, if you will, that we offer from a regional perspective? I think that's something we need to lead with.

COULTAS: Thank you. And Alan?

CARON: If anyone says we shouldn't overreact to climate change, they should ask the people today, in the panhandle of Florida, whether they're overreacting. There is no scientific debate about climate change; there hasn't been for a decade. There's only a political debate, and the rest of the country's figuring it out because they're seeing it every day. There's also been no energy policy in Maine. Something that masquerades as a policy, which is all about how we get the lowest price today, doesn't make investments that we need for tomorrow. That's not a policy. That's an escape from policy. I have proposed that Maine become energy independent within 30 years. That will do two things of great importance to us. One, it will save us $5 billion that we're now sending to oil and gas companies, and we can reinvest that here. And secondly, it's the greatest thing we can do for climate change in this state -- the greatest thing.

COULTAS: Thank you. And, Shawn, 30 seconds to maybe refine your comments on this?

MOODY: Not sure if I can do it in 30. I'm trying, Carol. No, this is really important. One thing that we feel strongly about is the PUC [Public Utility Commission] only has three members. We have small towns in Maine that have a $300,000 town budget that have five selectmen or women on it. It's a multi-billion-dollar industry in the utilities. We would go to the legislature and have two more appointees on that PUC. One, specifically, with a background and expertise in renewables.