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In Maine, rewards, risks test a town

HARPSWELL, Maine -- Residents in this fishing town near Brunswick are whispering about a plan that seems almost too good to be true. It could pay for nearly the entire annual town budget every year. Property taxes could drop. There is talk of new bike paths and even an indoor town pool.

 

The catch: The town must vote to allow huge tankers filled with super-condensed natural gas to dock in their clear, rocky bay.

Two energy companies are proposing to turn Harpswell's abandoned Navy fuel depot into one of the few liquefied natural gas terminals in the United States, with a pair of 120-foot-high storage containers, a gasification plant, and a pipeline to pump the fuel into the nation's natural-gas network. Tankers would arrive every four to nine days loaded with enough gas to heat at least 32,000 homes for a year. In exchange, the companies are offering the tiny town at least $8 million a year.

"It's neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend," said Robert Anderson, a former lobsterman and editor of the Harpswell Anchor, a monthly newspaper that has been flooded with letters both for and against the terminal. A vote is expected this winter. The prospect now splitting Harpswell's 4,600 voters -- and many nonvoting summer residents -- is playing out in coastal communities across the United States, as the country's energy appetite shifts toward liquefied natural gas, or LNG. There are now at least 36 new LNG terminals proposed throughout the country, including five in New England: Harpswell, Somerset, Providence, Fall River and as of two weeks ago, Maine's Sears Island.

Only four such facilities exist in the United States, including an Everett terminal that was shuttered for a month after Sept. 11 because of terrorism fears.

As American power plants rely more on relatively clean-burning natural gas, and as homeowners continue to switch to gas heat, the demand for the fossil fuel is growing. But the production of North American gas fields, already insufficient to meet demand, is declining, so the industry is relying more and more on imported natural gas.

The most efficient way to import natural gas is to cool it to minus 260 Fahrenheit, a temperature at which the gas is a liquid that can be shipped via tanker. Liquid natural gas imports -- primarily from Trinidad and West Africa, and soon from the Middle East -- have more than doubled since last year. Analysts predict they could increase sevenfold by the end of the decade. Before it is distributed across the country, the natural gas must be offloaded via expensive, high-security tanker terminals, where it is stored and then "revaporized" back to gas form.

Although federal law says that such terminals should be sited in "remote" settings, gas company officials say there are few places where they can tap into pipelines that aren't near people. One terminal has been proposed off California, and another has been approved 40 miles from land in the Gulf of Mexico, but building those facilities are expensive and untried, gas industry officials say.

Community acceptance of liquid natural gas terminals is "critical" to the success of liquefied gas as an energy source, said Robert Ineson, a director with Cambridge Energy Research Associates North American Natural Gas Group. "And we are seeing a mixed response," he said.

Opponents have a long list of concerns about the liquid natural gas terminals, but primarily believe they pose an explosion risk, either because of accidents or terrorism. In Harpswell, the proposed project is next to a neighborhood, and residents also worry that lobster fishing grounds will be polluted if the tankers have an accident or are damaged by a proposed underwater pipeline.

Such fights erupt in almost every community where terminals are proposed. One project was blocked in California; and residents from Mobile, Ala., to Fall River are fighting terminals because of safety concerns. In Harpswell, there is an added fear: It could harm tourism. Now, only lobster boats and sailing vessels are seen off its rugged and picturesque coast, which attracts thousands of summer visitors.

But supporters say liquid natural gas terminals are one of the safest energy delivery systems going. Liquid natural gas, they say, has been safely transported across the world's oceans for 40 years, and serious accidents rarely occur at terminals. And they point out that more terminals could help lower natural gas prices -- especially in New England, which is literally at the end of most natural gas pipelines, making the fuel more expensive here than elsewhere in the country.

It's unlikely that all 36 proposed terminals will be built, so energy companies are rushing to be among the first in line to get a permit. "There is a race on," says Peter Micciche, a gas company representative.

Micciche has told Harpswell residents that a vote needs to come as soon as possible if the company is to build in town. The town's vote was originally scheduled for mid-December, and selectmen have postponed it three times to hash out a lease agreement with the company. They say they are getting nearer a decision.

The companies proposing the terminal, ConocoPhillips and TransCanada, call the project "Fairwinds." It would occupy about 70 acres of a 118-acre former fuel depot on Harpswell Neck, one of the three long coastal fingers and islands that make up this town of some 5,200 residents. Some 900 people would be employed during its three-year construction, and 50 full-time workers when it went on line by 2009.

Now, as another vote date is anticipated, residents in the sprawling 23-mile town are rallying for their causes. On Harpswell Neck, signs are stuck in snowdrifts declaring "LNG Can't Buy Me." Lobstermen have hung a series of buoys from telephone poles with signs opposing the terminal.

But down the other coastal arm, which includes Great, Bailey and Orr's islands and Cundys Harbor, residents appear much more willing to have the tankers visit, and acknowledge they would never see the terminal. Some say they rarely even go to Harpswell Neck, which requires a drive through Brunswick or over the Ewing Narrows Bridge, and signs declaring "Fairwinds yes!" are seen more frequently.

Besides their worries about explosions, lobstermen are concerned about a 20-mile pipeline that will travel nine miles underwater as part of the project -- straight through some of the most lobster-rich sea floor in the state.

"For us lobstermen, the path [of the tanker] is like Main Street in Brunswick," said Paul Hickey, a longtime lobsterman in town and part of one of two opposition groups. Friday, he and other fishing families kicked off a rally to protest the project. "We fish right where it would come in. We could lose lobster gear, we don't know what the effects will be. It's too dangerous."

Others say property values would be pushed down.

Ironically, it's because of Harpswell property values that the terminal is being considered at all by many of its supporters. Harpswell, which has more shoreline than any other town in Maine, has seen its property values -- and income disparities -- balloon in the past decade. And many see the LNG windfall as a way to keep locals in town by lowering property taxes for year-round residents.

Deb Levensailor, a banker who founded Friends of Fairwinds, says the $8 million could help offset taxes that have almost doubled in the last five years.

"This is a gift, a once-in-a-lifetime gift, we can't let it get away," she said.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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