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Bill to halt natural gas expansion in Maine prompts energy and climate debate

In this Feb. 27, 2014, file photo, natural gas pipes are stacked in Lincoln.
Nick Sambides Jr.
In this Feb. 27, 2014, file photo, natural gas pipes are stacked in Lincoln.

A bill that seeks to slow down expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Maine has sparked a robust debate over the energy and climate policy within the State House.

Environmentalists insist the bill is a critical step toward a cleaner future but that the measure would not affect existing natural gas customers. But in the latest example of partisan divides over energy policy, Republicans dismiss the bill as government overreach that will only harm Maine residents and businesses.

"This bill is about limiting choice," Sen. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, said during a press conference before Tuesday's committee hearing. "This bill seeks to limit the cheapest form of heat, according to the Governor's Energy Office. And it's deplorable to me that Democrats in this state would seek to do that."

For years, natural gas was touted as a cleaner and oftentimes cheaper alternative to oil when it came to generating electricity, heating homes and even powering public transit buses. The process of fracking, which involves fracturing underground bedrock to enable the extraction of natural gas, opened up vast domestic sources. And a handful of natural gas companies responded by building new pipelines in southern and central Maine.

But natural gas is still a fossil fuel that pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned.

Bill Harwood, who heads Maine's Office of the Public Advocate, told members of the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that it's time to start looking beyond natural gas as Maine tries meet ambitious targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

"If we're serious about meeting our climate goals, we must begin the discussion of phasing out our reliance on all fossil fuels, including natural gas," Harwood said. "This bill basically proposes a pause in the expansion of natural gas while we study the future of it."

Harwood is the lead proponent of a bill that would prohibit natural gas utilities from expanding into new communities starting next year. The measure, known as LD 2077, would also prohibit gas companies from offering promotions to entice new customers. And it would direct the state to study the potential health impacts of natural gas combustion and leakage indoors.

Harwood and other supporters said the measure would not prevent Maine's roughly 50,000 gas customers from continuing to use gas. Gas companies have laid pipelines to several major businesses and offered residential customers along their routes to connect.

The Governor's Energy Office currently ranks natural gas as the cheapest heating fuel source in Maine followed by firewood and heat pumps. But global natural gas prices have fluctuated wildly in recent years because of the war in Ukraine and other international factors. Harwood's office fought a proposed 200% rate increase sought by Summit Natural Gas of Maine in 2022.

"I think we all agree that natural gas has a role in play in getting us where we want to be," Harwood said. "The question is how short is that bridge. I think you will here a lot of testimony today conceding that gas in not a permanent solution to our energy needs."

The proposal has strong backing from environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation, whose attorney, Emily Green, picked up on Harwood's description of natural gas as a bridge between dirtier fossil fuels like coal and oil and renewable energy.

"The bridge — if ever there were a bridge — can only be more and more condensed and clearly the alternative that is rising to the top is electrification in terms of costs and emissions," said Emily Green, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.

Jack Shapiro with Natural Resources Council of Maine pointed to the severe storms that caused massive flooding and damage to coastal and riverside towns in Maine over the past month as evidence for the need for prompt, decisive action on climate.

"While oil heating is the big kahuna in terms of reducing emissions, we need to make sure we are not growing a different problem as we are trying to solve another," Shapiro said. "Time is short and we just saw last week record tides as we've seen these storms over the past few weeks."

But the bill has encountered strong pushback from the gas industry, some town officials and Republican lawmakers. More than a dozen Republicans attended Tuesday's press conference opposing the bill.

"There's nothing better than diversifying your energy resources," said Sen. James Libby, R-Standish. "And we know that natural gas burns more cleanly and has been effective deterrent to building CO2 across the world, not just the United States or Maine."

Some Democrats are also opposed, as was clear Tuesday when Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash told committees that the bill feels anti-Northern Maine because it would shut the region off from natural gas.

"The idea that we would take away any heating source in a state like Maine, where people have real, real concerns about heating their homes, concerns me greatly," Jackson said.

Kurt Adams with Summit Utilities, which owns one of Maine's major natural gas companies, warned that the bill would stop investments in climate technology. Adams said his company has invested $25 million into a renewable fuel digester at a Maine dairy farm in Clinton that produces the equivalent of 45 percent of the gas that Summit Natural Gas provides to residential customers. And Adams disputed suggestions that Summit is responsible to gas leaks that add to climate change.

"This bill reflects a national conversation that people are trying to import to Maine's problems," Adams said. "And when you do that, you miss the facts on the ground."

The committee has not yet scheduled a work session on the bill.

Corrected: February 2, 2024 at 2:32 PM EST
Jack Shapiro, not Jeff, is with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
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