SKOWHEGAN — Sappi Fine Paper North America’s plan to hook into a proposed natural gas pipeline would be the latest move in its effort to reduce its carbon footprint and the company is performing an engineering study that would show how effective that move would be.

The company proposing the pipeline, Kennebec Valley Gas Co., said having the plant on board is essential for the pipline to make its way north of Waterville.

The town’s voters get to weigh in on whether they want to approve a tax break for the gas company that would allow the pipeline to go through town at a special town meeting Feb. 14.

Last week, selectmen listened to a pitch from Sappi officials.

“The Somerset Mill is performing a detailed engineering study to explore the potential addition of natural gas to one of its boilers, which would replace oil as a back-up fuel source for this particular equipment,” said Sappi spokeswoman Amy Olson.

She declined to give additional details.

Upgrades totaling $49 million at the Somerset mill completed in 2010 allowed the company to reduce its carbon footprint, improve overall energy efficiency and reduce its dependence on foreign oil, outgoing Managing Director Fred C. Oettinger said last year.

Upgrades included a process of cleanly burning old tires and biomass wood waste to power the plant. Those efficiencies combined with the burning of “black liquor” from the mill’s pulping process, has allowed Sappi to reduce burning oil from 900,000 barrels a year to a projected 200,000 barrels this year.

Oettinger said the company’s recycling program and use of alternative fuels — such as tires –is part of its focus on the planet, including air quality, water quality and energy usage. Natural gas also might have a role, he said, with the possibility of the gas pipeline to the area.

Rich Silkman, a partner in KV Gas, said Wednesday his company has been in contact with Sappi and is aware of the engineering study Olson referred to.

He said Sappi will have to examine the timing of the possible conversion to natural gas and what it will cost.

Silkman stressed that having Sappi as a major customer along the 56-mile pipeline route is essential to the future of the project.

The $86 million pipeline is expected to start at an existing compressor station on the Maritimes and Northeast pipeline in Richmond and continue north from Augusta to Madison. The state Public Utilities Commission last year granted preliminary approval of the project.

Communities along the route are being asked by KV Gas to approve tax increment financing agreements to help pay for the construction.

Voters in Skowhegan will take up the issue at a special town meeting Feb. 14.

The town of Madison is proposing to bond $72 million to build a pipeline similar to what’s proposed by Kennebec Valley Gas, also from Richmond to Madison. The town has set a ballot vote March 13 on whether the town should approve the borrowing, even though residents rejected the bond proposal in a vote in November.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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