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Natural gas and making the right choice for Maine

Posted Aug. 21, 2012, at 3:53 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 21, 2012, at 7:03 p.m.

The state of Maine and the towns of the Kennebec Valley have an opportunity to bring millions of dollars in investment, hundreds of jobs and cheap, abundant natural gas to our region. We just need to make the right choice.

Maine has the highest per capita consumption of heating oil in the country, with 70 percent of the population using heating oil as their main source. This accounts for up to three quarters of a billion dollars leaving the state annually. As a state hard-hit by the recession, this opportunity is exactly what Maine needs to spur economic activity and lower energy costs for businesses and residents alike.

Almost a year ago, Gov. Paul LePage announced his goal of cutting in half the amount of heating oil used in Maine by 2012. This makes sense. The governor recognizes how our dependency on oil harms our economy. Thankfully, the state is taking action that could potentially help us reach this goal. But there is more to be done.

Earlier this year, the state of Maine issued a request for proposals, or RFP, soliciting bids that would supply natural gas to the state office buildings in Augusta and Gardiner. It also required that the winning bid have the capacity to go up the Kennebec Valley to the town of Madison. Two bids were considered. But only one bid committed to serve the whole Valley.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine Inc. submitted a bid that met the requirements of the RFP. It proposed a $150 million project with 435 jobs and committed to serve 15,000 commercial and residential customers within three years — 25,000 when full build-out is complete.

On the other hand, Maine Natural Gas proposed a $19.3 million project with 46 jobs. MNG committed only to serve the city of Augusta, and any further build-out to the rest of the valley was “all depending, of course, on being financially viable.” MNG provided no promise and no timetable. MNG is a subsidiary of Spanish-based Iberdrola, which is also the parent company of Central Maine Power Co.

Summit Natural Gas has a proven track record in Colorado and Missouri, serving 35,000 commercial and residential customers. In their 15-year history, Summit has added 2,000-3,000 new customers per year.

During that same 15-year time frame, MNG has averaged only 200-300 new customers per year, and they currently serve fewer than 3,000 people. MNG has publically stated they will “aggressively pursue” expansion, but for the 15 years MNG has been licensed to serve our area, they have not connected a single customer in the Kennebec Valley.

As municipal officials looking out for the best interests of our communities, we must evaluate the claims being made, and the history of the companies making those claims. For us, the decision is simple.

Unfortunately, nothing is simple. The state RFP was awarded to Maine Natural Gas, and Summit has filed an appeal that was heard on August 14. Until the appeal is decided, the fate of gas service to the Valley hangs in the balance.

Right now, we are urging the state to invalidate the RFP and issue a new one that specifically asks bidders to provide a timeline and commitment for natural gas service to the entire valley through Madison. Gas shouldn’t stop in Augusta. The economic health of all of our area residents and businesses depends on access to natural gas.

Andrew MacLean is mayor of Gardiner, Karen Heck is mayor of Waterville and Dana Berry is town manager of Madison.

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