May 23, 2018
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Energy Access Worries

In the coming months, negotiations will intensify as businesses in Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec, and the state and provincial governments, prepare to redraw the energy map in this part of the country. Much is at stake, and deliberate, careful considerations are necessary. But at the same time, there is a sort of race underway to establish new energy corridors from Maine and the two provinces to the high-demand areas in southern New England. Much like the early days of natural gas networks or the railroads, the first major corridor to be established will have cost a lot of money, and will not be undone any time soon. The location of that first major corridor could bless or curse Maine.

A newly formed advocacy group, Maine Jobs First, is hoping to influence these negotiations by adding its demands for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Washington County. The group is ratcheting up the leverage with newspaper ads, which suggest that Maine could get short-changed if the energy corridors are built as mere pass-through conduits between New Brunswick and Massachusetts. Fair enough. But such concern may be premature and unwarranted.

Earlier this year, Gov. John Baldacci proposed the concept of leasing state rights of way, such as those that follow highways, to private businesses as corridors for natural gas, electricity, data transmission or oil. David Farmer, the governor’s spokesman, asserts that the state is not about to sign leases without concessions. Specifically, the governor wants to negotiate long-term contracts with users, he wants to guarantee access to electricity transmission lines so Maine’s growing wind power industry can sell power in southern New England, and he wants Maine firms to build the corridors.

Another key concession the governor should seek is to have spurs located along the corridor, so business or industrial parks can be built where high energy-use firms can take advantage of lower-cost power. Washington County is a likely location for such spurs.

In addition to the other concessions, Maine Jobs First also is advocating for the state to essentially trade access to the energy corridor to New Brunswick business and government in exchange for the province dropping its opposition to a liquefied natural gas terminal in Washington County.

This assumes the same parties interested in using Maine’s corridors are also able to green-light the passage of LNG ships in Passamaquoddy Bay. And it also assumes that the opposition is political, and not based on legitimate environmental and maritime safety concerns.

This sort of posturing could cause the state to miss a very big opportunity. If negotiations are unnecessarily slowed down or obstructed, the large hydropower generators in Quebec may beat both Maine and New Brunswick to the punch and supply southern New England with the power it needs through a different corridor.

Maine must be smart in what it seeks in exchange for such a corridor, if it is built. But it is worth remembering that second place is as good as last in these sorts of considerations.

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