Interrupted gas from Canada worries Maine energy users

Posted April 10, 2009, at 9:41 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — An association of Maine energy-consuming businesses said Friday that an interruption this week in the supply of natural gas from Canada suggests Maine could be at risk of “overreliance” on Canadian energy supplies.

An April 7 electrical fire and related problems shut down ExxonMobil’s natural gas compression facility at Sable Island, off the shore of Nova Scotia, according to Tony Buxton, an energy lawyer who represents the Industrial Energy Consumers Group.

According to Canadian news reports, the facility can’t resume production until it can demonstrate that its operations can be restored safely.

Maine is fortunate that the unplanned disruption in supply from Canada’s Sable Island gas field occurred when the weather is relatively mild, Buxton said in a news release Friday on the consumer group’s behalf.

“If this were December or January our electric grid might well have gone black because several of Maine’s natural gas power plants would have been completely without gas,” he said.

According to Buxton, the gas interruption affected Verso Paper’s 175-MW cogeneration plant in Bucksport and the 520-MW Maine Independence Station in Veazie, among others. The Veazie power plant can generate enough wholesale electricity to serve approximately 500,000 homes.

It was not clear Friday when the natural gas supply from offshore Nova Scotia might be fully restored. Attempts to reach a spokesman for the Sable Island facility, operated by ExxonMobil, were fruitless Friday because of national Good Friday observances in Canada.

Bill Cohen, spokesman for Verso Paper in Bucksport, said Friday that this week’s disruption forced the mill to buy natural gas at premium prices from a different supplier so it could continue to generate electricity.

“We’ve been able to run at a very minimal level. We couldn’t get enough [natural gas] to run it at full power all week,” Cohen said.

Buxton says there were similar supply disruptions in 2007, 2008 and earlier this year.

“This supply uncertainty from Canada has a major economic effect on Maine’s electric grid and businesses and could potentially lead to some businesses shutting down,” he said.

Buxton’s complaint comes as the Maine Legislature considers proposals to establish energy corridors, which he claimed were “proposals to award preferential energy corridors to Canada that would make the state even more reliant on Canadian energy supplies and diminish the development of more reliable Maine-based supplies.”

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, however, called Buxton’s conclusions regarding the proposed Northeast energy corridor “erroneous.”

He said Maine — particularly Aroostook and Washington counties and the Down East region — have “massive potential” for producing renewable, clean energy from wind and tidal power.

“Right now we don’t have the transmission capacity to move it from [the areas where it can be produced] to a very hungry energy market to the south.”

Baldacci and New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham in February signed a memorandum of understanding pledging to collaborate on the proposed Northeast corridor project.

The corridor, they believe, could transport electricity, petroleum products and natural gas with transmission lines, pipelines and related facilities.

The facilities would be grouped together to minimize harm to the environment, the officials said.

According to a Baldacci administration policy paper posted on the state’s Web site, the first phase of the project would include 1,200 to 1,500 MW of electrical transmission capacity, new wind generation in both Maine and New Brunswick, and a new natural gas-fired cogeneration plant in Saint John.

Though Maine and New Brunswick officials estimate that the first phase would require an investment of several billion dollars, they believe the project would result in significant job creation, first through construction and later through operation.

“It’s absolutely real and the stakes are high,” Farmer said Friday, adding that Maine has “a unique opportunity right now” and needs to act on it.

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