FARMINGTON — A natural gas pipeline linked to the University of Maine at Farmington would mean millions in savings for the school and a huge reduction in carbon emissions, but a campus coalition group seeking zero emissions is holding off on saying whether the pipeline will help meet that goal.

Switching to natural gas could reduce carbon emissions to about half that produced by the oil it would replace — the equivalent of taking 200 cars a year off the state’s roads, the university’s president said. It would also save the school an estimated $4 million in energy costs over a decade.

Last week, University of Maine System Trustees announced they had approved contract negotiations between UMF and Summit Natural Gas of Maine, furthering a proposal for a natural gas pipeline from Jay to Farmington. The gas line, if built, would be connected to a line that already has been supplying Verso Paper in Jay since 1998.

The announcement followed months of community discussion about the pipeline, which also would connect to several businesses that have said they are interested in hooking up to the line.

Summit Natural Gas officials have said inclusion of UMF is essential to the project coming to the area. Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, is a big supporter of the line’s expansion and has accused UMF of delaying the project.

“They should be ashamed of themselves,” Saviello said.

While proponents of the gas tout it as both a money- and environment-saving solution, the Sustainable Campus Coalition in its 77-page Climate Action Plan for UMF mentions natural gas just once — in a paragraph that lists the fuel source as a nonrenewable energy that the campus should move away from.

“Our goal is to decrease our reliance on external sources of fossil fuels,” the plan states.

Andrew Barton, a biology professor at the forefront of the green initiative and an author of the climate action plan, said in an email Friday that the Sustainable Campus Coalition will know more about what effect the natural gas project will have on UMF when a final contract is complete.

“Most people are waiting, including those of us in the (coalition) and myself, to see the details of a final agreement and contract before forming a detailed opinion,” Barton said.

The gas project, which would replace heating oil systems in several campus buildings, would save UMF an estimated $4 million over a decade.

UMF President Kathryn Foster said in a news release from the University System that the annual heating oil reduction from the switch is estimated to be the equivalent of removing 200 cars from Maine roads each year.

UMF’s role

The coalition, which is a group of UMF professors and students, has been pushing the campus to achieve carbon-neutrality, or a net-zero impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The group’s action plan calls for campus-based renewable energy systems — the top choice is to “substantially increase geothermal” — and, as a last resort, buying offsets to reach net-zero emissions. Other systems listed in the plan include solar hot water, wind and photovoltaics.

The Environmental Protection Agency states on its website that natural gas combustion produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, but in lower quantities than burning coal or oil. Compared to the average air emissions from burning, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and 1 percent as much sulfur oxides, the website states.

The UMF coalition is pursuing a long-term goal of carbon neutrality goal by 2035. The first big benchmark for the college is 2015, when it plans to have made a 20 percent reduction from 2007 levels.

Summit began talks with Franklin County officials after Saviello contacted the company.

Michael Duguay, director of business development for Summit, said the company has to have large committed customers before it can justify laying down expensive infrastructure for the utility.

The company has not committed itself formally to bringing natural gas to the Franklin County area yet. Duguay said the university’s interest was the most important factor when considering building a pipeline.

UMF officials will have to negotiate a final agreement that then would be subject to approval by the University of Maine System’s vice chancellor for finance and administration and the system’s legal counsel.

“It’s very important that when the dust settles, we’re coming to UMF,” Duguay said.

Saviello has said previously the university took too long to make a commitment, and that if it had entered negotiations with Summit earlier last year, a pipeline could have been a possibility a winter sooner.

County officials and businesses first started research with Summit at the end of 2012.

Saviello said UMF officials’ delay on making the commitment kept residents and businesses in the area who are using costly oil to heat their homes from reaping the savings natural gas would bring.

Wait and see

Barton said he already has heard a spectrum of responses to the fact the school is moving forward with gas pipeline negotiations, ranging from a positive reaction that the school will lower its costs and environmental impact, to disappointment that UMF isn’t moving aggressively to nonfossil fuel energy sources.

The campus has installed three geothermal heating and cooling systems. Last summer the university completed its latest project, the installation of 80 ground-source heat pumps, for $1.55 million. The project is expected to reduce carbon emissions by about 354 tons annually, or about the same amount of emissions 67 passenger cars produce in a year.

Barton and Luke Kellett, University of Maine at Farmington sustainability coordinator, said whatever the results of the natural gas negotiation are, it will be an opportunity for UMF students take the reins in analyzing what that effect the final agreement will have on carbon emissions and other environmental factors at UMF.

“It will be interesting to see what they come up with,” Barton said.

The route and the cost of the proposed pipeline still has to be hammered out, Duguay said. He said the company is not sure if it would take a more rural route to Farmington or follow a main road.

Town officials and business leaders in the county have held meetings with Summit previously to demonstrate local interest in natural gas. Two large potential buyers, Franklin Community Health Network in Farmington and Pallet One in Livermore Falls, have expressed interest in the project.

“Our expectation is that there is a lot of interest,” Duguay said.

Summit is investing more than $300 million to install natural gas pipelines from the Augusta area up to Madison in Somerset County. Another company, Maine Natural Gas, also is installing pipeline in the Augusta area.

Elsewhere in the UMaine system, the University of Maine at Augusta has signed a five-year deal with Maine Natural Gas — Summit’s regional competitor. University of Maine System spokeswoman Peggy Markson said the University of Maine at Machias also is working to bring gas to its campus.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 [email protected]