Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 2007

Paperback, $15.95

A Partial Look at LNG

Opponents of the various liquefied natural gas projects proposed for Maine aren’t going to like this book; its author explores the arguments for and against LNG, but she concludes, frankly, that it’s a reasonable source of energy for the Northeast.

“To this particular student of the issues,” she writes, “the answers to the basic questions have come clear. LNG does fill an energy gap in a reasonable manner, and there are parts of the country that can benefit from it… The people who handle it have learned how to do so in a safe manner.”

“The sorts of locations [for LNG development] that make sense,” Thorndike writes, “are offshore or in rural areas.”

In a remarkably short time, LNG has filled what would otherwise have become a gap in the Northeast’s energy supply, particularly as a fuel source for electricity generation. The gas-fired power plants built in the wake of the retirement of the Maine Yankee nuclear plant have more than filled the void, and they’re cleaner than coal and probably more cost-effective (depending on market conditions) than oil. Still, we must not forget that LNG is yet another fossil fuel, and that as a long-term solution to this region’s energy problems it’s simply not sustainable. It’s also as susceptible to supply disruptions as oil, and as some have pointed out in these pages, a consistent supply of it can be hard to find. Canada and China, among other countries, have already spoken for a considerable amount of the world’s natural gas, leaving one to wonder whether — if someone develops a facility in Maine — there will be sufficient gas to run it.

A thorough researcher, Virginia Thorndike has interviewed lots of experts in the area, focusing particularly sharply on the safety questions that inevitably arise when a developer proposes an LNG facility in a Maine community such as Harpswell or Robbinston. She handles the safety controversy in a workmanlike fashion, reflecting the many risk-management scenarios that have been developed for these projects and concluding — reasonably — that the “nuclear bomb” predictions are likely wide of the mark.

Still, bringing large LNG ships into Casco Bay (as was suggested for the now-defunct Harpswell project) or through Head Harbour Passage into Robbinston or other spots in the Eastport area poses considerable risk. The threat of fog and the region’s legendary currents killed off an oil refinery proposed for Eastport 30 years ago; they still pose enough risk to have motivated the Canadian government to deny passage through its waters for American LNG ships today. (To her credit, Thorndike notes that the Canadian government might not be above denying passage to give its own LNG developer, Irving Oil, an advantage.)

What Thorndike hasn’t explored thoroughly enough, however, are the social effects a huge industrial development would have on Maine’s working coast. Inevitably, piloting big ships into small ports would disrupt what’s left of Maine’s fishing industry in various ways, and the construction of the necessary infrastructure would surely distort small-town economies, not to mention the region’s increasing dependence on tourism.

Does Maine need LNG? As a short-term source of energy, LNG deserves a fair hearing. As a long-term solution I can think of a lot of other sources — wind, solar, conservation, simply toning down our lifestyles — that make a lot more sense. q

David D. Platt is editor of Working Waterfront. In his off hours, he is co-chair of Maine Interfaith Power and Light.