Pipeline politics: Falmouth hopes to attract natural gas service

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FALMOUTH — It’s no secret that town officials and business owners want to see a natural gas pipeline running through town.

And with the impending reconstruction of the Martin’s Point bridge, they believe a connection to the pipeline that ends on Veranda Street in Portland makes sense.

But according to Unitil representatives who attended a community meeting Tuesday with the town’s Economic Improvement Committee, it’s not going to happen.

“We’re increasing pressure in that system this summer, but we don’t have a lot of capacity at the end of the system line there,” Mike Smith, Unitil business services manager, said.

Smith said the pipeline that ends at the bridge simply doesn’t have the pressure to supply the Route 1 business district and the rest of Falmouth, because the line provides gas to all of Portland before ending at Martin’s Point.

However, Unitil presented an alternative to bringing the pipeline across the bridge.

The pipeline that now runs to the Lewiston-Auburn area is a higher-pressure line that the company could tap into and run from the northern end of town, down Falmouth Road to the Route 1 business district.

Smith gave an off-the-cuff estimate of $3.5 million to bring the pipeline through Falmouth, something the company would likely not undertake unless it has a guaranteed customer base – in particular, an industrial or manufacturing operation.

“We need someone who uses natural gas to make things,” Kelly Fowler, Unitil business development manager, said. “Production really drives usage.”

Town Manager Nathan Poore suggested there are possible funding alternatives, including tax increment financing, money from the Route 1 study and possible grants.

There was some talk during the meeting of transitioning the schools and Town Hall to heating with natural gas as a possible back-up to, or instead of, the proposed wood-chip boiler that is going before voters in June.

The discussion has been driven by impending road reconstruction work, including the section of Middle Road that will be rebuilt this summer and repaving of Route 1  the Maine Department of Transportation has planned for 2013.

“Reconstructing roadway is very expensive for us,” Smith said.

However, Smith indicated Unitil would not be likely to pay for pipelines that are not ready to be immediately activated.

“If the town wants to install a dead pipeline in the ground, we would install it and engineer it for future growth,” he said.

A competing natural gas distributor, Maine Natural Gas, recently installed pipeline in Freeport, hooking up L.L. Bean, the schools, town buildings and the community center to the new fuel source.

Natural gas costs between 40 and 60 percent less than oil and is transported along interstate pipelines from Canada and other parts of the United States.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who sits on the Legislature’s Energy and Utilities Committee, said during the meeting that lawmakers would soon be considering making alternate financing available to extend natural gas pipelines in the state.

“The Legislature is poised to wrap its arms around natural gas,” he said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.