An underground natural gas pipeline from Windsor to Rockland is being proposed by Self-Gen, a company that is trying to get large area businesses like Dragon Cement and FMC interested in using natural gas to create electricity and provide heating and cooling.

LePage administration representatives David Emery and Ken Fletcher were at Rockland City Hall on Monday, December 19, to promote the extension of an existing natural gas pipeline from central Maine to the greater Rockland area as a way to lower local energy costs for businesses.

Emery claimed that natural gas holds the greatest promise for having a low environmental impact and supplying energy needs to the state, but he said that he would get behind any energy source that could succeed in the free market system.

Paul Aubrey, the engineer from Self-Gen, was on hand to unveil a development proposal that includes a gas pipeline and local power-generating plants in places such as Dragon and Pen Bay Medical Center that he said would be able to supply efficient and inexpensive power and create 25 percent less emissions in the process.

The increased efficiency occurs by using natural gas to create electricity, to heat and to cool. Burning the gas generates electricity that can be used directly or sold to nearby customers or to the grid. High-temperature exhaust gases, which are immediate byproducts of electricity production, are usually lost as waste. Self-Gen would build what they call Tri-generation plants that would both produce electricity and capture the exhaust gases to create steam or hot water that could be used for heating and cooling.

Aubrey said the technology has been used in Europe for decades but is new to Maine.

The increased efficency would reduce costs for users, said Aubrey. The free market system gets some help, however: natural gas energy development, like other energy development from oil to wind, relies in part on subsidies and tax incentives.

"There are a myriad of tax incentives for this at the federal and state level, including a 10-percent federal tax credit," said Aubrey.

For Self-Gen to move forward with the project and to get pre-development financing, they are seeking legal agreements with large local energy users to allow Self-Gen to site Tri-generation plants on their properties and to promise they would sign on to buy Self-Gen energy for 10 to 20 years.

Self-Gen is seeking agreements from Dragon Cement, FMC, Penobscot Bay Medical Center, Rockland Walmart, Thomaston Super Walmart, the Warren Correctional Facility, and Hannaford Supermarket and would like to get them from the Knox County Courthouse, the Thomaston and Rockland wastewater treatment plants, and Fisher Engineering. Strategically located Tri-generation plants would be sited at many of those locations, with the one at Dragon Cement being the anchor for the project. Residential use could eventually be developed for high-occupancy areas such as downtown Rockland.

Self-Gen has access to financing through Global Energy Partners, LLC, an international consulting and financial procurement firm. The LePage administration would provide a leadership role in bringing the players together and assist Self-Gen with "the regulatory process, barriers and (with) political support," according to the proposal outline by Self-Gen.

Cianbro would build the pipeline and the Tri-generation plants concurrently. Aubrey estimated the pipeline and plants would take less than two years to complete. The location of the pipeline is not yet established, but Aubrey said the Route 17 corridor to downtown Rockland is a likely route, since it would not require easements other than that of the Maine Department of Transportation right-of-way along Route 17. A second option would be to follow the utility corridor from Windsor cross-country through Warren to Dragon Cement in Thomaston.

Some of the natural gas would come from Pennsylvania, said Aubrey. Some would come from Canada.

The next step, said Aubrey, was to see if there was interest by the targeted companies in the greater Rockland area in joining in an official memorandum of agreement.

On the face of it, natural gas as an energy source is cheap - 50 to 60 percent less than fuel oil, for example, and less than half the price of propane, according to Aubrey - and it burns cleanly. But the research and development costs do not take into account the costs associated with potential contamination during the natural gas extraction process.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has come under scrutiny in Pennsylvania and elsewhere as being the potential source of contamination of groundwater by benzene, methane, radiation and several hundred chemicals used in the extraction process. Fracking has become a political football, with some claiming it creates no pollution problems at all and others calling for it to be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

However, on December 8, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report that indicated drinking water had been contaminated by fracking in Wyoming, noting that "ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing. EPA also re-tested private and public drinking water wells in the community."

The EPA report noted that the levels of contaminants, in this case, did not trigger human health concerns; however, the report goes on to state that "in the fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed EPA's data and recommended that affected well owners take several precautionary steps, including using alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking, and ventilation when showering. Those recommendations remain in place."

Fracking is currently exempt from the federal Clean Water Act. If it is identified as a recognizable hazard and does come under the purview of the Clean Water Act, mitigation costs will be passed on, either to the consumer as higher prices for natural gas or as taxes.

The next step in the process towards bringing the pipeline to Rockland is for area businesses to request a meeting with Self-Gen to further explore what would be required in a memorandum of agreement. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.