Leadership Lacking on LNG

Posted July 18, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

Mainers first saw the letters LNG in newspaper headlines seven years ago, when a firm proposed building a $350 million liquefied natural gas terminal in Harpswell. Voters there rejected the proposal after a bitterly contentious debate that divided the community. The conflict led Gov. John Baldacci to pledge that LNG facilities — port infrastructure that allows the large ships carrying the product to dock and warm the fuel to convert it back to a gaseous state — would not be permitted in any community where a majority of residents opposed it. That move seemed very Solomon-like at the time, but now appears shortsighted, painting Maine into a corner.

The governor and a majority of legislators support bringing LNG into a Maine port. And most people understand the importance of moving away from an oil economy and toward cleanerburning fuels such as natural gas. Yet despite the receptive posture, little progress has been made toward LNG actually being pumped off ships in Maine waters.

The recent puzzling development in the Calais LNG proposal, in which the state Board of Environmental Protection canceled scheduled hearings on the project at the developer’s request, suggests the odds against Maine seeing an LNG terminal are growing. Whether it is market forces, or conditions specific to the developer, is unknown.

There may be little a lame duck governor can do to change those odds, despite Gov. Baldacci’s steadfast cheerleading. The next governor should work with the Legislature, business leaders and environmentalists to craft a list of standards by which to measure proposed sites. Local input certainly should be weighed as part of those standards, but it should not be enough to greenlight or kill a proposal. A key component of the standards must be a way the gas importation facility allows Maine industry to have access to the fuel.

A superficial, decidedly lay analysis of the three proposals for the Passamaquoddy Bay area suggests the location is less than ideal. Maritime passage is tight, and the international nature of the waters poses permitting problems. Additionally, there is a recently upgraded LNG terminal just 50 miles away in St. John, New Brunswick.

But there are market forces driving LNG interests to New England and Maine. Before the Maritimes & Northeast gas pipeline went into use in 2000, New England was one of the few regions in the U.S. with little access to natural gas. Maine was especially lacking in natural gas infrastructure. Now that the pipeline is in place, LNG terminal developers and fuel suppliers are able to get natural gas to the high-demand southern New England market.

As with electricity produced by Maine’s growing wind power infrastructure, the tricky part is finding a way for local industry to benefit from access to the fuel. But even if every cubic foot of gas leaves the state, the economic activity associated with such a project would be welcome in Washington County. If the current proposals are no longer viable, Maine gets the chance to clear the table and start over and identify suitable sites.

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