Editor's note: On the day this article was published, Summit Natural Gas sent a letter to municipal officials announcing it would not go forward with its planned midcoast expansion. Kurt Adams, president and CEO of parent company Summit Utilities, wrote: "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."

A Rockland City Council hearing February 23 on a proposal to bring natural gas service to the midcoast produced two opposing views of the project, both nominally pro-environment.

Of the more than 50 people who spoke against the pipeline or wrote emails and letters in opposition, most expressed some version of the idea that any new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is turning a blind eye to climate change. Summit Natural Gas of Maine, the developer, argued that its fossil fuel produces less greenhouse gases than oil and should be welcomed as a step in the right direction, and a handful of heads of industry supported the plan based on lower energy costs and jobs building the pipeline.

Rockland is the first municipality to hold a public forum on the proposal, announced by Summit on February 5. The virtual format drew participants from across the state.

Summit Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Colorado-based Summit Utilities, has been operating in Maine since 2012 and currently offers service in Falmouth and Yarmouth, and in the Kennebec Valley, through Augusta and Waterville, with a branch extending north through the paper mill and tomato hamlets of Skowhegan and Madison.

Under the current proposal, Summit would run a natural gas pipeline from Thomaston to Belfast along Route 1.

Lizzy Reinholt, Summit’s senior director for sustainability and corporate affairs, said the draw for the $90 million investment is large commercial users, but natural gas would be available to homeowners and others. The goal, she said, is to “be in front of” about 6,600 customers.

Reinholt said conversions of oil systems in the midcoast would reduce local fossil fuel emissions by 263,000 metric tons in the first five years. The project would create about 100 jobs. Some would be permanent, though many would be limited to the seven-year construction project, she said. Wages and salaries would vary, but entry-level workers would make $19 or $20 per hour.

Reinholt declined to name potential anchor customers, but the route of the proposed pipeline would pass a number of large businesses and industrial facilities, including the Dragon Products cement plant in Thomaston (Dragon did not return a call requesting comment), big box stores on either side of downtown Rockland, the DuPont carrageenan plant, three commercial downtowns, two hospitals, various small industries scattered along Route 1 and the proposed site of Nordic Aquafarms’ land-based salmon farm in Belfast. JB Turner, president of Front Street Shipyard, which lies at the northern end of the route, wrote a letter to the Rockland City Council in support of the project saying the shipyard installed propane boilers at its waterfront complex in Belfast with the hope of later converting to natural gas. Turner said Summit’s plan would fulfill the shipyard’s “longtime search for cost-effective and efficient clean energy.”

The city of Belfast has already expressed its support for the pipeline. Mayor Eric Sanders was quoted on Summit’s announcement of the project welcoming the pipeline on behalf of the City Council. “From pricing to environmental benefits, this is a unique opportunity for our region,” he said.

Speaking after the Rockland meeting, Sanders said he’s spoken with many people locally who want natural gas, a utility that is available in many other parts of the U.S.

“I don’t have the luxury of saying, I’m mayor, and since I feel I want to be environmentally sensitive I’m going to disallow or not support something that a lot of people in Belfast do support,” he said. “That’s not what we do. We run a balanced budget. We don’t have a carbon initiative to go zero by 2040, or whatever they were trying to do up in Bangor.”

Two Rockland councilors, Nathan Davis and Benjamin Dorr, openly opposed the project at the meeting, and two members of Thomaston’s Select Board joined to the call to voice concerns, including Zel Bowman-Laberge, who said her town’s comprehensive plan, approved in 2020, states a goal of moving toward 100% renewable resources. “I use it as a guide when I consider projects coming to Thomaston,” she said, adding that she is concerned the pipeline might not qualify as a renewable resource.

Two state representatives also weighed in. Sen. David Miramant (D-Knox County) and Rep. Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) both spoke on February 23 against the pipeline. Doudera held a copy of the Maine Climate Council’s “Maine Won’t Wait” climate action plan up to her webcam, calling it “my bible for the past bunch of months,” and said the pipeline goes against many of the plan’s suggestions for cutting carbon emissions and transitioning to a clean energy economy.

“I feel like it’s a giant step backward for us here in midcoast Maine,” she said. “Natural gas is itself already a powerful greenhouse gas and it’s a nonrenewable resource.”

Natural gas does appear in the text of “Maine Won’t Wait,” but only once, in a section on the industrial sector that reads: “Achieving deep emissions reductions in this sector by 2050 will likely require significant shifts away from petroleum-based fuels to cleaner alternatives. 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.”

Reinholt of Summit Natural Gas quoted the passage as evidence that her company’s expansion is supported by the state’s climate action plan.

The source of the gas was a concern for many who spoke against the proposal on February 23.

Extracting natural gas in the U.S. largely involves hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced into underground sedimentary rock formations — usually sandstone or shale — breaking the layers apart and releasing stores of oil and gas. The liberated fuel is drawn up through the boring wells to be burned in power plants (roughly one-sixth of Maine’s electricity came from natural gas in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration) and in building heating systems, ovens and dryers. In addition to requiring large amounts of groundwater that can be contaminated in the process, fracking has been linked in independent studies to a variety of health problems. The boom in the industry over the past decade has heightened concerns that the real costs of natural gas, as with other extractive industries, have been glossed over by gold-rush enthusiasm.

Gas supplied by Summit would come into Maine from the south via the Maritimes and Northeast pipeline, which, similar to an electric grid, combines energy from a number of suppliers. In this way, the network of pipelines makes it impossible to say which gas molecules were fracked into service.

“I just want to be emotional about this, because that’s what it is,” Karin Spitfire of Belfast told the Rockland council. “The water that they destroy to get fracked gas, the land that they destroy to get it, to bring it here to open up a new market for this destructive, horrible thing is stupid. I just want you to go into your body and think, what would it be like if they drilled into your bones to take your bone marrow. That is what they’re doing with fracking.”

On the practical side, Spitfire said Summit shouldn’t bank on the salmon farm being built in Belfast. “Both things are destructive to our lives here,” she said. “We have to think about our children’s children.”

Supporters on the February 23 call included representatives from Laborers Local 327 and Operating Engineers Local 4, along with principals of several businesses around the state, including Backyard Farms of Madison, who spoke favorably about natural gas service and working with Summit.

Chris Tucker, president of Laborers Local 327, said a 36-inch natural gas pipeline runs through his personal property in Winterport. “I hunt it, I fish it, I snowmobile on it,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about fracking, well, it’s already here. It’s gonna stay here, just like oil is.”

Paul Serbent, senior technology manager for Huhtamaki, a global food packaging maker that operates its largest factory in Waterville, said converting three oil-fired boilers to run on natural gas in 2017 has allowed the company, and 500 union jobs, to stay in Maine. “The lower natural gas costs helped us do this,” he said. “It’s unobtrusive. You don’t even know it’s there.”

Jonathan Fulford of Belfast offered a counterargument, saying he strongly supports developing more union jobs, but not by building this natural gas pipeline: “The decarbonization of our society will produce many, many more jobs in expanding the grid and in renewable energy projects within this region, where we can produce our own energy locally with our local control and reap the benefits of not importing $6 billion, approximately, of fossil fuel every year into the state of Maine.”

Fulford said the conversation about jobs should take into account any effects on climate change, including the likely damage the fossil fuel industry has caused to the lobster fishing industry as a result of the warming and acidification of the ocean. “If we’re talking about jobs, we need to be protecting the bay and the Gulf of Maine,” he said. “This is in direct contrast to that priority.”

Reinholt described efforts within the natural gas industry to decarbonize the fossil fuel, which she called “greening the molecule.” In 2019 Summit proposed using manure from a Clinton dairy farm to produce biomethane, or what the industry terms “renewable natural gas,” that could be used in natural gas systems. The facility has not been built, but Reinholt said it shows the company is taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint of its product.

“I’m a big believer in the molecule and the future of gas and the decarbonization of the molecule,” she said, “and I think Maine has the potential to lead the way in that.”

Councilors Dorr and Davis politely objected. “You seem like very nice people,” Davis said. “I’m adamantly opposed to this project, but you seem very nice, and I know it’s tough to be in front of a hostile audience.”

If the elected officials in Rockland or any of the other municipalities along the route object to the pipeline, it’s not clear what they can do about it. As a utility, Summit is regulated by the Maine Public Utlities Commission and would get additional permits for road work through the state Department of Transportation.