Peruse a map showing the availability of natural gas service in the lower 48 states and one fact becomes glaringly clear: Maine is out of the loop.
States less populous than Maine, such as Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota, all have more access to natural gas service. Maine is joined in its outside-looking-in status regarding natural gas by New Hampshire and Vermont.
Having access to natural gas for heating commercial and residential buildings and to make electricity has the potential to boost Maine’s economy. Subtracting the high cost of oil heat and expensive electricity would allow businesses to invest in other activities, and the residential savings means more money would circulate through the local economy.
Natural gas has been one of the lowest-cost fuels in recent years, and it is likely to remain so for several years. It also burns clean, meaning it contributes less to global warming. Recently, Gov. Paul LePage pledged to make it a focus of his administration’s energy policy.
That’s a smart move, but the governor must understand that natural gas must be just one part of a broad state energy portfolio. If it can be expanded here for industrial use, manufacturing can be sustained or even grown.
In fact, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler talked about building natural gas corridors along some of Maine’s rivers during last year’s campaign.
But the governor must be equally bullish on wind power, especially the off-shore wind proposal that’s in development. And he must keep the momentum going on the previous administration’s efforts to improve the efficiency of Maine homes and businesses. Not spending an energy dollar is easier than cutting a dollar from the cost of fuel.
Currently, natural gas is available in a dozen Greater Bangor communities and in several Southern Maine towns. The fuel passes through Maine in a pipeline that begins in Goldboro, Nova Scotia, which is where natural gas is imported from the Sable Island natural gas fields on the edge of the continental shelf.
The pipeline was built in 1998 not to make the fuel available for Maine businesses and residents, but to reach the natural gas grid in Dracut, Mass., to serve the high demand in southern New England. Maine was able to get a couple of spurs off the line, one that extends to the Verso Paper facility in Bucksport and one that allows a plant in Veazie to produce electricity by burning the fuel.
It will take more than words to persuade gas companies to build new infrastructure to expand the availability of natural gas. There likely will have to be a public-private partnership of some sort; that is, taxpayer money will have to be invested. The governor must realize that if market dynamics were enough, the gas pipelines would have been built long ago. Market forces are what killed the push by several companies to build LNG importation facilities in Maine.
While the governor is wise to try to expand natural gas in Maine, he must not promise developers that environmental regulations will be rolled back to ease the cost of construction. His comments about coal — that it is not viable in Maine because of the cost of trucking it here — are troubling.
Still, more spurs from the natural gas pipeline that passes through Maine would be unqualified good news.