February 18

Propane’s promise as Maine fuel in jeopardy

Even if this winter’s tight supply is overlooked, industry changes threaten to keep prices high and stall the alternative to heating oil.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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Dead River company employee Dan Printup oversees the transfer of liquid propane from the rail cars to the storage tanks last week.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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SHIPPING BY RAIL RESISTED

It’s too soon to know how the industry task force will come down on propane exports. One idea being discussed is pushing for limited exports when domestic supplies fall to a certain level. But Joe Rose, a task force member who heads the industry’s office in New England, said ample supplies in Texas, for instance, would do nothing for consumers in the Northeast.

Some observers have questioned whether the federal government should waive the Jones Act, which requires goods shipped between American ports to be domestically flagged. That would let foreign propane vessels from the Gulf Coast call on New England, the thinking goes.

But a Jones Act waiver won’t help, Rose said. The large foreign vessels taking on propane in Texas can hold 30 million gallons, while the storage tanks in Providence and Newington are roughly half that size. Beyond that, those ships are too big to sail under the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge to Newington, Rose said.

The obstacles to marine transport, and the premium price for imported propane, means that most of Maine’s supply is likely to come by rail, experts say. Up to 90 percent of the state’s propane is delivered by rail today, chiefly from western Canada.

But for rail to be a secure option, it must be coupled with ample storage. As the opposition at Searsport and Sea-3 demonstrates, it’s hard to overcome public angst about moving or storing large quantities of propane.

In the Northeast, the biggest challenge for the industry now is playing out near Seneca Lake, N.Y. At issue is a plan to fill giant, underground salt caverns in the spring with 88 million gallons of propane and pump it out during the heating season. The Finger Lakes LPG Storage facility would connect with the TEPPCO pipeline, and have rail and truck access for 24/7 loading. The project is awaiting state approval, but has drawn strong opposition centered around safety concerns for moving propane and the geologic stability of the salt caverns.

“We think Finger Lakes would provide the most immediate help for the Northeast,” Rose said.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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