May 26, 2018
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Searsport propane tank means energy security

By David Cole, Special to the BDN

As debate over the proposed propane storage facility in Searsport goes on, it is absolutely critical that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture, which is addressing the overarching energy needs of our state and region.

Propane is an important component of our energy mix, as an estimated 26,000 households in the state heat with propane, including many lower-income and elderly people who live in some of the poorest areas of rural Maine. Almost all of our propane is brought in from far-flung out-of-state facilities, leaving some of Maine’s most vulnerable populations at risk as any number of factors beyond the state’s control can greatly disrupt supply, leading to shortages and price spikes in the dead of winter.

This vulnerability was highlighted in spades in February of 2007 when Maine faced just such an emergency. I was commissioner of transportation at the time and witnessed this severe propane shortage brought on by a rail strike and unfavorable weather conditions.

For several days that February, Gov. John Baldacci and the Maine Emergency Management Agency team scrambled to identify not only available supplies of propane from beyond our borders but also the means of getting this essential commodity to Maine. Through a great deal of effort, Baldacci and our team were able to patchwork through these challenges, working with suppliers such as DCP Midstream and the transportation industry to prioritize available supplies to the most at-risk populations, such as the elderly.

It was not without economic consequences, however. For example, Fisher Engineering in Rockland had to shut down its snowplow manufacturing operations temporarily and send approximately 150 workers home because of the lack of propane to run the plant.

In the aftermath of this event, it became abundantly clear that we need our own primary storage facilities here in Maine to better control supplies and stabilize pricing and not be held hostage to the outside world in our ability to heat our homes and businesses. It is just common sense to do all we can to address this glaring weakness in our energy supply chain, and it is the right thing to do for all of those families that depend on propane for those cold winter days like February 2007.

For all these reasons, I strongly support DCP Midstream plans to build a propane storage facility at the Port of Searsport.

Why Searsport? The most economic and environmentally friendly means of bringing propane to Maine is by ocean cargo, and a midcoast location makes sense given proximity to users as well as good in-land connections. Furthermore, since the late 1970s, Maine has pursed a “three-port strategy” (Portland, Searsport and Eastport) and the Port of Searsport specifically serves the midcoast region and much of the hinterland of Maine, including the Penobscot Valley and Aroostook County, by both rail and highway.

It is also important to point out that Mack Point in Searsport already serves as the “energy port” for this region, with an established energy terminal and access to a deep-water channel. In short, a propane storage facility is essential to our energy security, the midcoast area is the right location, and only Searsport has the infrastructure to handle this endeavor.

And having worked in economic development in eastern Maine and the midcoast region for 24 years, I see several reasons for the citizens of Searsport to support this development beyond the role it will play in our energy security. From what I understand, DCP Midstream has agreed to hire local labor for up to 100 construction jobs and the 12 to 15 permanent jobs will pay an average of $70,000 plus benefits.

DCP Midstream will pay its fair share of property taxes as well to the town of Searsport, which will be significant, and hasn’t asked for any tax property tax breaks such as tax increment financing. Add to this Midstream’s stellar safety record and I think you have the makings of a pretty good partnership with the community.

There have been some grumblings that the Searsport project will increase truck traffic. Certainly there will be more trucks on the road. However, some perspective is needed. Through the permitting process, Maine DOT determined that 3.8 million vehicles a year pass through Route 1 in Searsport. The increased traffic generated by this project would account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of current traffic and barely moves the needle.

Economic development for Searsport, energy security for Maine: sounds like a win-win situation to me.

David Cole was transportation commissioner in the Baldacci administration. He now operates David Cole Consulting, which advises clients on transportation issues.

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