Summit Natural Gas of Maine is withdrawing plans for a $90 million pipeline expansion into Maine’s midcoast region after facing opposition from environmental activists and failing to gain community consensus.

The company had announced the expansion project less than a month ago, but sent a letter Tuesday to community leaders to announce its decision to halt those plans.

While the prospect of natural gas coming to the area was embraced by some municipal officials, including those in Rockport and Belfast, others questioned whether gas was the best choice at a time when Maine state policy favors a rapid transition to renewable energy.

Last week, more than 100 people logged on to a four-hour Rockland City Council meeting at which Summit made a presentation about the proposal. Most residents who spoke during the online meeting were against it.

Councilor Nate Davis was strongly opposed to the project. He asked the City Council to get legal advice on whether it can ban the burning of natural gas in Rockland, as a way to stop the project. A handful of state lawmakers from the region also said they were opposed to bringing natural gas to the area.

Davis said Tuesday he was pleased Summit had withdrawn its plans. “Let’s harness the enthusiasm that this discussion has generated to advance clean energy, efficiency and grid modernization in our region,” Davis said, “and to build alliances among municipalities to accomplish this.”

Also in play was a growing campaign led by Sierra Club Maine to block what it called the fracked gas pipeline, a reference to the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract the fuel. It had begun seeking donations to organize opposition in the Midcoast and saw 276 people sign a petition over a few days.

“I want to stress that this was a local effort,” said Sarah Leighton, the group’s chapter director. “The fracked gas pipeline has been stopped because of the people in Midcoast Maine stepping up to say ‘no.’ This was a true demonstration of the power of local community organizing.”

In its letter to community leaders, Summit didn’t mention the environmental group pushback, but said large infrastructure projects require regional cooperation and a collaborative political environment to be successful.

“Our proposed expansion into the midcoast would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cut energy bills for businesses and families, and helped to modernize the region’s energy infrastructure,” said Kurt Adams, chief executive of Summit Natural Gas of Maine. “While there is strong interest in our service among residential and commercial customers and among many community leaders, it has also become clear that a consensus about the region’s energy future does not currently exist among leaders across all area communities.”

Adams added: “Without regional alignment on the best ways to reduce emissions and promote cleaner energy usage, we will no longer pursue plans to bring natural gas to this part of Maine.”

Summit likely concluded it would be unable to secure permits in all of the communities the pipeline would traverse, making the project impossible to complete.

NATURAL GAS A ‘BRIDGE’ FUEL?

Informing Summit’s decision is the growing national opposition to the concept that natural gas is a preferable, cleaner-burning “bridge” fuel to move from dependence on oil and coal to a future energy mix dominated by solar and wind.

But it’s a complicated issue.

Maine’s climate action plan, for instance, recognizes the challenge of achieving deep reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in the industrial sector, without significant shifts away from petroleum-based fuels.

“Some fuel-switching opportunities can be both cost effective and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as converting from oil to natural gas and increasing efficiencies through combined heat and power (CHP) technologies,” the plan says.

A prime example is the Dragon Products cement plant in Thomaston, a longtime industrial landmark along Route 1. The plant’s kiln is fueled largely by high-carbon petroleum coke, supplemented by hard-to-recycle items such as shredded tires and carpet. The company has been cited over the years by state environmental regulators for emissions violations and paid a $66,937 fine in 2020.

Dragon was one of the area’s large companies negotiating for a natural gas hook-up, Summit said.

Summit said its proposed expansion in the midcoast would have created more than 100 jobs, reduced energy costs for homes and businesses, and cut carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 263,000 metric tons over the first five years, equivalent to taking more than 56,000 cars off the road. The project eventually would have reached more than 6,500 customers, the company said.

Opposing the pipeline for environment reasons is misguided and counterproductive, according to Tony Buxton, an energy-issues lawyer and one of the partners who initially permitted the Kennebec Valley Gas Co. in 2010. The rights were subsequently sold to Summit, which went on to build multimillion dollar gas pipelines in Portland’s northern suburbs and in the Kennebec Valley.

Converting the Sappi Fine Paper Co. mill near Skowhegan to gas, for instance, replaced hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil annually. Similar benefits could have been achieved in the midcoast, Buxton indicated, and further cut Maine’s reliance on oil.

“Are we going to start putting less CO2 into the atmosphere sooner rather than later?” he asked.

PUBLIC RESISTANCE THROUGHOUT THE U.S.

The defeat of the natural gas pipeline in midcoast Maine reflects broad public resistance today to most energy infrastructure projects.

The Atlantic Coast gas pipeline in West Virginia, and the Dakota Access and Keystone XL crude oil pipelines in the Midwest are all examples of fossil fuel pipeline projects that fell to opposition in 2020.

But Lizzy Reinholt,  senior director for corporate affairs at Summit’s parent company, said public resistance seems to extend to all large energy projects, whether they involve fossil fuels or not. She noted the sustained opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect power line project, which has begun construction in Maine but is subject to court challenges and a referendum vote.

“I think it’s really hard to build infrastructure today, whether it’s a pipeline, a power line or wind project,” she said. “Our project is not alone in its inability to move forward.”

Courier-Gazette Staff Writer Stephen Betts contributed to this report.


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