Detail from “Water Ways,” by the Beehive Design Collective (Courtesy beehivecollective.org)
Detail from “Water Ways,” by the Beehive Design Collective (Courtesy beehivecollective.org)

Did you just get a slick flyer in the mail from Summit Natural Gas claiming that “simplicity, convenience, efficiency and cleaner burning” will accompany the new pipelines it wants to lay throughout the midcoast this year? Sounds wonderful, right? Who doesn’t want to live a greener lifestyle? Some local leaders have already jumped in to join the corporation in promoting natural gas as clean and green. Both Rockport Town Manager William Post and Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders participated in Summit Natural Gas’s press release announcing their plans, unequivocally expressing support for laying for-profit fossil fuel pipelines in our communities, with each claiming that natural gas is an environmentally friendly choice. Apparently, the Belfast City Council is already on board: Sanders is quoted in the press release as saying, “On behalf of myself and the City Council, I wholeheartedly welcome Summit Natural Gas of Maine to Belfast.”

But make no mistake: natural gas is neither clean nor green. For years, the natural gas industry has engaged in greenwashing, deceptively marketing its product and infrastructure as environmentally friendly. Not unlike the multimillion-dollar campaign by Central Maine Power

(CMP) to convince Mainers that its so-called Clean Energy Corridor is in our best interests, Summit Natural Gas and the entire natural gas industry have engaged in a vigorous effort to convince us to buy their fossil fuels and invest in their unsustainable infrastructure.

What’s wrong with natural gas?

Most natural gas in the United States is extracted from the earth via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking is the process of forcing a mix of water and chemicals deep into the earth through a well to create fractures in rock, releasing methane or other substances that flow into the well and up to the surface for human use. Fracking is, in a word, terrible. There

exist well-documented cases of groundwater and air contamination near fracking sites, and companies that engage in fracking generally do not disclose the composition of their particular brand of toxic stew. An extensive review of related scientific literature published in February 2019 in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health found that multiple recent, credible, peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated associations between fracking and “[negative] pregnancy and birth outcomes; migraine headache, chronic rhinosinusitis, severe fatigue, and other symptoms; asthma exacerbations; and psychological and stress-related concerns.” And who bears most of the burden of fracking? You guessed it: poor

people. A 2015 study by researchers at Clark University found that “the poor in Pennsylvania are unequally exposed to pollution from unconventional gas wells” and “the results demonstrate that the environmental injustice occurs in areas with unconventional wells in Pennsylvania with respect to the poor population.”

We used data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to estimate that approximately 85% of consumer-grade natural gas produced in the United States in 2020 was extracted from fracked wells; this percentage is likely to increase in future years. We asked Summit if they sell fracked gas, and if so, what percentage of the gas they sell in Maine is fracked. They refused to answer.

Natural gas has been touted as a less-harmful “bridge fuel” from coal and oil to more-renewable energy systems such as solar and wind. Most of us want to move away from dependence on coal and oil, but is it accurate to say that natural gas is overall better for the environment than coal and oil? Probably not. Natural gas is mostly methane, and it’s true that at the point of consumption (i.e., your stove or furnace), methane emits less carbon dioxide than other combustible fuels. But methane itself is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and when you trace the entire lifecycle of natural gas from fracking to transportation to storage, the impact of natural gas on climate change seems to be comparable to that of other fossil fuels. There is considerable uncertainty over the numbers, in part because studies have shown that the industry and U.S. government generally underrepresent the volume of methane that the industry leaks directly into the atmosphere. But claims that natural gas can be a “bridge” to a low-carbon future lack evidence, credibility, or urgency. More bluntly, they are magical thinking.

Debating whether or not the greenhouse effects of natural gas are the same as any other fossil fuel misses a central point, perhaps the most important point: new fossil fuel infrastructure is the last thing the world needs right now. The more pipelines we build and the more wells we drill, the more financial and political incentive there is to keep them running. They encourage dependence, and they seduce us with appeals to incrementalism, false economies, and externalized costs. As author and climate activist Bill McKibben writes in his recent essay, “Build Nothing New That Ultimately Leads to a Flame,” in The New Yorker, “Every time you build something new that connects to a flame, you’ve chosen not to build that solar panel, not to build a wind turbine.” He also writes: “If you’re already in a hole that would take a decade to climb out of, why would you dig yourself another decade’s worth of pit?”

Here in Maine, we’re in a fossil fuel “pit” courtesy of CMP (a private company ultimately owned by Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola), which has spent many years opposing solar energy projects in Maine. With their lobbying power and tight grip on the energy grid in Maine, CMP succeeded in stymying attempts to expand countless solar and wind projects. The resulting lack of readily available solar and wind options, along with inadequate subsidies for heat pumps, has made Mainers more susceptible to opening ourselves up to natural gas, especially when it is presented as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to oil or liquid propane.

What do we know about this new-to-us company, Summit Natural Gas?

Summit Natural Gas’s parent company is Summit Utilities, Inc., which is headquartered in Colorado. A 2013 slide presentation by Summit Utilities on its Kennebec Valley expansion states that Summit Utilities “is wholly owned by the Infrastructure Investments Fund, a private equity fund advised by JP Morgan Asset Management.” It also indicates that Summit Utilities manages approximately $260 million in assets. So, at least as of 2013, Summit Natural Gas, which a company representative described to us as a “small local distribution company,” was owned by a parent company managing $260 million, which was itself owned by a private equity fund with a portfolio of utilities, advised by one of the world’s largest financial services firms. In what appears to be a press release from 2020 announcing yet another acquisition, this private equity fund describes itself as “a $12.5 billion private investment vehicle.”

Summit Utilities, like CMP, is part of a giant for-profit private company that has spent millions of dollars trying to convince the public that their projects are good for the environment. When Summit Natural Gas was moving into Maine, they flooded their target communities with ads, trying to convince Mainers to buy their product. In an act of astonishing audacity, they then tried to force their new customers to subsidize this advertising. The 2015 Portland Press Herald article “Summit Natural Gas wants customers to foot bill for ad campaign” describes how Summit tried to convince the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to allow this scheme. The Maine Office of the Public Advocate was critical, contending that customers should not have to bear risk costs that should have been borne by the company and its shareholders.

Becca e-mailed Summit with questions for this article, such as “Does Summit sell natural gas extracted from the earth via hydraulic fracturing (fracking)?” and “Does Summit [Utilities] participate in any PACs, or are you involved in lobbying government officials, as many energy companies take part in?” Lizzy Reinholt, Summit’s senior director of Sustainability and Corporate Affairs, initially responded with stock promotional material that answered only one of our 14 questions. When asked again to answer the questions, Reinholt claimed, “The response answers many of your questions.” It did not. Later, Reinholt followed up with more specific responses, yet they remained opaque, obfuscated with corporate spin. We are left to wonder if Summit believes the people of midcoast Maine are small-town fools eager to swallow whatever they feed us.

The menace of corporate-government overlaps and alliances

We are up against so much when it comes to realizing a sustainable future. Consider government-corporate entanglements like this one: the current president and CEO of Summit Utilities, Kurt W. Adams, was the chairman of the Maine PUC from 2005 to 2008. That means he was Maine’s chief utilities regulator; he would have known the ins-and-outs of Maine’s energy rules and been in a position to help write the rules in order to favor certain energy infrastructures. Immediately upon leaving the Maine PUC, Adams, like many government officials, slipped seamlessly into a corporate job in the for-profit energy sector, accepting a position as senior vice president of First Wind, a wind energy company where in 2009 he made $1.3 million. Prior to leaving the PUC, Adams had accepted an ownership interest in First Wind. According to the 2010 Bangor Daily News article “Ex-PUC head enriched by utility company,” Adams and his lawyers claimed there was nothing unethical or illegal about Adams accepting 1.2 million “units of equity” in First Wind while he was still working his government job. But the government watchdog Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., disagreed. Tom Welch, who was chairman of the PUC from 1993 to 2005, also expressed discomfort with the arrangement. The article additionally describes an “unusual” intervention made on behalf of First Wind by the PUC while Adams was its chairman, only several months before he became First Wind’s senior vice president.

Can we expect our leaders in Washington to speak out against the boondoggle and greenwashing that is natural gas, and in favor of renewable energy and efficiency? Let’s follow the money. Adams is a frequent donor to Maine Democratic politics, donating $10,000 to the Maine Democratic Party in 2020, and, in 2019, giving the maximum allowed to Sara Gideon’s campaign. He gave the maximum to Jared Golden in 2018, along with $1,000 to Chellie Pingree. In 2017, he gave $2,600 to Angus King. Where do these politicians stand on fracking and natural gas? Have Adams and others in the natural gas industry bought their political obedience? It’s not that simple. Representative Pingree has announced her support for the Green New Deal, which seems wonderful; however, the Green New Deal does not explicitly mention fracking, though it is said to imply eliminating it as a consequence of the fast cuts in emissions that it would require. In 2019, both Pingree and Golden voted for H.R. 1616, a bill to encourage expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Europe.

Senator Angus King has at times worked hard to support the natural gas industry, pushing aggressively to expand natural gas pipeline infrastructure throughout New England. But he isn’t 100% pro-fracking. He opposes offshore fracking in Maine, and he has pushed for regulations to better capture methane released during the fracking process. He has also focused on cybersecurity concerns related to the vulnerability of natural gas pipelines to attacks. Issues related to natural gas are likely close to home for King, because Summit Utilities’ chief development officer is Senator King’s son, Angus King III, who has subsidized his father’s campaigns with maximum contributions.

With relationships like these, don’t expect our leaders to denounce the natural gas industry anytime soon.

If not natural gas, what is the answer to a more sustainable future?

In August 2019, the Rockland City Council passed a Resolve Supporting a Climate Action Plan for Rockland. This resolve pledged that Rockland will “work collaboratively, inclusively, and collectively” to meet its climate goals (including carbon-neutrality by 2045) by, among other things, “crafting city policy to reduce greenhouse gasses and improve energy independence; reducing energy consumption; [and] eliminating reliance on fossil fuels for home heating.” Do these words mean anything if we roll over when a gas company comes to town? Some might wonder whether it’s wise or fitting for Nate, a sitting Rockland city councilor, to write so strongly about Summit and its plans. One might also wonder whether it’s wise or fitting for the town manager of Rockport or the mayor of Belfast, speaking for the Belfast City Council, to join so enthusiastically in the greenwashing press release of a private fossil fuel company. Nate views his participation in this column as a necessary corrective to, and guard against, an assumption of unanimous support by municipalities or public officials.

The fact is that interventions in the climate crisis are more about policy than about individuals’ personal choices. Most of us want to live more sustainable lives but lack the money to do so, and for decades, our political and economic systems have subsidized and favored fossil fuels over renewables. How should we heat our homes in order to reduce our environmental footprint? For many readers, the biggest climate (and comfort!) bang for the buck can be obtained through weatherization, primarily insulating and tightening our drafty old Maine living spaces. After that, electricity-powered heat pumps can provide relatively low-carbon, comfortable heating, even in low temperatures. With Maine finally starting to dig itself out of the fossil fuel pit and moving towards truly renewable electricity generation, electrical energy sources will be the way to go. At the national and state levels, we need to immediately make weatherization, heat pumps, and other efficiency improvements free or heavily subsidized.

We urge our readers to cast a cold eye on natural gas, which is an investment in the past, an investment in the global climate catastrophe.

Oppose it? Have questions? Take part in Rockland City Council’s discussion with Summit Natural Gas on Feb. 23 at 5:30PM on Zoom. Meeting ID number 836-9004-3712; password: 847149. Public can also comment via email to City Manager Tom Luttrell at tluttrell@rocklandmaine.gov prior to the meeting.

Editor's note: A portion of this column describing Summit Natural Gas's rebate promotion has been removed because it contained incorrect information provided by the company.