February 14, 2013

LePage aims to reduce Maine's energy costs with natural gas conversion

State energy director says switch would streamline environmental permitting, other programs

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage's energy director says the governor's recent promise to fast-track natural gas infrastructure projects and lower energy costs for residents and businesses will mean streamlined state environmental permitting, new programs to help Mainers convert to natural gas and other alternatives to oil heat.

click image to enlarge

Maine Natural Gas started construction in September 2012 installing a natural gas pipeline along Route 17 in Windsor.

Photo courtesy of David Bosse/Maine Natural Gas

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However, the two companies competing to bring natural gas to the Kennebec Valley already have most state approvals they'll need and cite no problems with Maine's regulatory process, saying it has worked fine for them.

Even so, company officials said they welcome any help in converting Maine homes, businesses, and government and school buildings to natural gas.

In his State of the State address last week, LePage said Maine's energy costs are too high, singled out natural gas as an energy alternative that could help lower them, and vowed to take steps to speed and ease the construction of natural gas projects in Maine. He said the average Mainer spends more than $3,000 a year on heating oil and could save $800 a year by switching to natural gas.

"My predecessor fast-tracked permitting of wind projects," LePage said, referring to former Gov. John Baldacci. "We're going to do the same for natural gas."

In an interview, Energy Director Patrick Woodcock said natural gas projects should be encouraged and hastened, primarily by making Department of Environmental Protection permit processes faster and less complicated.

"Any and all natural gas projects have to be streamlined," Woodcock said. "One thing we're looking at is modeling some of the effort on what the Wind Energy Act did on some of the permitting."

The 21-page Wind Energy Act of 2008 was approved during the Baldacci administration, following the recommendations of his Governor's Task Force on Wind Power Development. It was designed to speed up the permit process for developers.

Woodcock said the state should take similar steps for natural gas.

Any changes in those processes aren't likely to speed development of natural gas in central Maine, where Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas of Maine largely already have their permits. In the case of Maine Natural Gas, the firm already has started laying pipe in the ground. Summit plans to do so this spring as soon as the weather allows.

Officials from those firms say they haven't a hard time getting permits, but there has been one complication.

Both companies submitted bids in response to a state request for proposals last year to provide natural gas to state facilities in Augusta and Gardiner; however, the state's efforts to strike a deal for natural gas to heat state buildings were scuttled. An appeals panel ruled in September that the bid process used by the state Bureau of General Services to select Maine Natural Gas as the provider was flawed and invalid.

Maine Natural Gas has since filed a lawsuit, which the courts have yet to decide, contesting the state's approval of Summit's appeal.

"One item that could help encourage natural gas expansion is to reissue the (request for proposals) for natural gas service to all the state facilities in the Kennebec Valley so we can have the opportunity to appropriately design our distribution system," said Tim Johnston, executive vice president of Summit Natural Gas of Maine, a subsidiary of Colorado-based Summit Utilities.

Woodcock said LePage is frustrated that the state hasn't been able to convert state office buildings in Augusta to natural gas. He said the buildings use about 220,000 gallons of oil annually. However, Woodcock said he couldn't discuss when the state would issue a new proposal request because of the unresolved legal issues looming over the failed first attempt.

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