The opposition that Summit Natural Gas faced in its now dashed attempt to extend a pipeline to the midcoast is just the latest instance of the region pushing back on the development of a large-scale energy project.
From a natural gas power plant to a liquified propane gas terminal, there have been numerous energy-related projects proposed for the region over the last several decades that have faced huge opposition.
While many arguments against the projects have been rooted in environmental concerns, people familiar with activism in the region say the opposition is also about something bigger. It’s about fighting back against perceived threats to their local communities, Jay Davis, a former journalist who has lived and worked in the region for over 50 years, said.
Those threats can be environmental, economic or even philosophical.
“There is a well-grounded opposition to big projects [coming in] from outside [of the state] that people perceive as threatening their communities, their hometowns, their way of life,” Davis said. “They’re opposing major changes that are going to affect their close environment in a negative way.”
Here are a few examples of oppositions that have played out along the midcoast.
Maine Yankee nuclear power plant
It’s almost impossible to talk about controversial energy projects on Maine’s coast without talking about Maine Yankee, the state’s only nuclear power plant.
Maine Yankee opened in Wiscasset in 1972 and by 1987, the plant was producing about a quarter of the power used by the state of Maine, according to Bangor Daily News archives.
While ― at the time ― the plant was an economic boon to the local community, it generated strong opposition from critics who were concerned about safety violations at the plant and the environmental threats of nuclear waste. During its operation, there were several statewide referendums to close the facility; however, none were successful.
Maine Yankee ultimately shutdown in 1996, prompted by a series of outages and equipment failures at the plant. The site was decommissioned in 2005. However, nuclear waste is still stored at the site.
“The fight over Maine Yankee was big and it lasted for a long time and it was very contentious. And it finally disappeared of its own heaviness,” Davis said.
Twin River Energy Center
In 2007, a Connecticut-based development firm proposed building a $1.5 billion coal gasification plant on the former Maine Yankee site in Wiscasset.
The plant, dubbed the Twin River Energy Center, would have produced 700-megawatts of electricity at peak production and 9,000 barrels of diesel fuel per day, according to Bangor Daily News archives. The energy would have been created through the process of extracting gas from coal.
Developers touted the project as a “clean coal” investment. However, many environmentalists in the region took issue with those claims, arguing that the plant would still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Some locals also worried that the traffic from barges delivering coal to the plant could hurt the local fishing and tourism industries.
Wiscasset voters rejected several ordinance amendments that would have been necessary for the project to go forward, and the plant never came to life.
Searsport liquid propane terminal
In 2010, a $40 million liquid propane gas terminal and propane tank was proposed for Mack Point, an existing fuel depot in Searsport across from Sears Island.
The proposal featured a 23-million-gallon propane storage tank that would have been about 14 stories tall. Through the proposal, propane would arrive at Mack Point’s existing deep-water import dock via four to seven tanker ships annually. During the winter heating season, as many as 50 trucks a day could fill up at the facility to load propane and make deliveries.
An opponent group, “Thanks But No Tank,” was formed to bring attention to the project and to concerns such as increased truck traffic, the danger of vapor explosions called “BLEVEs,” and decreased property values in the “blast zone” around the storage tank. Concerns were also raised about how the sight of a 14-story tall storage tank could hurt the local tourism economy.
Developers ultimately withdrew their proposal after the Searsport Planning Board determined that several elements of the application did not meet the town’s ordinances.
Rockland natural gas plant
The recent pipeline proposal was not Rockland’s first experience with natural gas developers. In 2015, the city was approached by a Boston-based developer that was interested in building a $200 million natural gas power plant on city-owned land.
The plant would have used natural gas to generate upwards of 68-megawatts of electricity to be sold on the power grid as well as steam that could be used by local industries. The project would have required the construction of a pipeline to bring natural gas to the plant.
A citizen’s group, Renew Rockland, was formed in opposition to the proposal. Members felt that the city should not allow for the development of a fossil fuel project that would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
In response to these concerns, the city council enacted a moratorium on power plants in the city, which ultimately deterred the developer from going forward with the project.
Why the opposition?
People might want to align some of the pushback against these projects with a “not in my backyard” attitude, but Davis said that’s not an entirely fair assessment of the opposition.
The midcoast region’s identity and livelihood is closely intertwined with its environmental landscape, from tourism to fishing. So, any development that could negatively alter the local environment causes a visceral reaction, Davis said.
From an environmental perspective, coastal residents have a front row seat to the impacts of climate change as sea levels rise and water temperatures warm. This reality often leads them to think twice about fossil fuel developments.
“The community in midcoast Maine in general wants to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. Living on the ocean, you’re just more acutely aware of how our actions impact the environment,” said Amy Files, a Rockland resident who has opposed the past two natural gas developments proposed for the city.
Economically, one of the region’s biggest revenue generators is tourism. With pristine landscapes drawing folks to the area, any development that could potentially change the landscape can cause skepticism, especially as land on the Maine coast is becoming harder and harder to come by.
Ultimately, opposition to these types of large-scale energy projects has roots in something a lot of Mainers feel a responsibility to do: preserve the character of the state.
“It’s representative of a pretty strong environmental ethic that Maine people have that is demonstrated repeatedly,” said Pete Didisheim, Natural Resources Council of Maine Advocacy Director. “People care about preserving the character of Maine.”