PORTLAND, Maine — Energy officials have long wanted to decrease reliance on heating oil in Maine, but efforts to bring other fuel sources into the state have not always been met with open arms.
Mainers have resisted past efforts to increase the flow of natural gas through large liquefied natural gas terminals.
On Saturday, the divisions were apparent again in the coastal town of Searsport, where residents were voting on whether to enact a moratorium that would slow down a proposal to build a 14-story storage tank for propane brought to Maine by tankers. In a straw poll eight years ago, townspeople voted against the idea of a terminal.
The state is not taking a position on the propane tank proposal in Searsport because it’s viewed as a local issue, said Office of Energy Independence and Security Director Kenneth Fletcher.
But generally speaking, increasing propane storage capacity would stabilize and diversify Maine’s energy supply, he said. Propane is brought to Maine by truck and railroad from out of state.
“We want to make sure people have options, and propane is one of those options,” Fletcher said. “And we need to make sure there is sufficient supply so people can have access to it in a reliable manner.”
In Searsport, Denver-based DCP Midstream wants to erect a 22.7 million-gallon tank at an existing marine terminal that is home to more than 30 much smaller tanks, which hold heating oil, gasoline, diesel fuel and other products.
Supporters say the propane tank would bring jobs, add to the local tax base, and provide a stable supply of propane for Maine homes and businesses. But critics say the project is too big, would create more truck traffic and hurt the region’s tourism-based economy, while raising environmental, safety and pollution concerns.
DCP Midstream is a private joint venture owned equally by ConocoPhillips and Spectra Energy. It has already received approval from the Department of Environmental Protection, but still needs the OK from the Army Corps of Engineers and the town.
The project will result in more than 100 jobs during construction and another 12 to 15 permanent jobs once it’s completed that would pay roughly $40,000 to $56,000 a year plus benefits, the company said.
It’s the promise of jobs that appeals to A.J. Koch Jr., 29, a lifelong resident who is between jobs. Tourism-based businesses are only seasonal and aren’t high-paying, he said.
“We need something,” he said. “I think we have one of the best natural resources we could ask for with the harbor. If we don’t do something, then we’re just wasting it.”
Searsport residents have a long history of resisting development. For decades, they opposed efforts to develop the state-owned Sears Island. A straw poll eight years ago put Searsport among several Maine towns where residents opposed proposals for LNG terminals.
This time, a vocal opposition group known as Thanks But No Tank has taken root.
The tank is simply too big for the small town, which has about 2,800 residents, said Astrig Tanguay, who owns the Searsport Shores Ocean Campground with her husband and is a member of the opposition group. It will be visible from miles away, she said, and will threaten tourism.
She’s also concerned about pollution from increased truck and ship traffic, lighting that could diminish the dark night sky, and the potential for fires and explosions. The local roads will take a beating with so many heavy trucks and the air could smell like rotten eggs when the wind’s blowing a certain way, she said.
About 50 propane trucks a day would come and go from the terminal in winter and 15 to 17 in the warm-weather months, said DCP Midstream spokeswoman Roz Elliott.
Right now, Tanguay said, the town and the region now have a nice balance of retail, industrial and tourism jobs.
“If we shift to heavy industrialization, all of that will go down,” she said.
If a moratorium is approved, a nine-member committee will examine ordinances and determine if they “sufficiently protect the health, safety and welfare” of residents from the tank development. If the committee determines existing ordinances are inadequate, it will make recommendations for change to town selectmen.
At the least, a moratorium would delay the project. Depending on the committee’s findings, it could also derail it.
The tank proposal has its roots in a propane shortage in 2007. Maine depends on rail shipments for a majority of its propane, and supplies tightened during a rail strike in Canada. Then, bad weather delayed two propane ships bound for other terminals in New England.
The shortage underscored the Maine’s need for its own propane storage capabilities, said David Cole, who was Maine’s transportation commissioner during the shortage and now operates a transportation consulting business.
“Propane is part of the energy mix of the state,” said Cole. “And in my mind it makes sense to have storage capacity here so in the future we’re not dependent on storage from away.”