The company that wants to build a $1 billion liquefied natural gas terminal in Calais surprised state officials Tuesday by asking them to postpone a long-anticipated hearing on the project, set for next week in Washington County.

In a letter to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection, Calais LNG said it’s reluctantly asking that the hearing on its state environmental permit be put off until after Sept. 1. The company said it lacks “certain relevant information” and needs more time to get material to the board and the Department of Environmental Protection.

It asked the board to reply by 5 p.m. today.

The board’s chair, Susan Lessard, was considering the request late Tuesday and looking to clarify what information was lacking. She will make a decision today, said the BEP’s executive analyst, Cynthia Bertocci.

It’s highly unusual for an applicant to make such a request less than a week before a major hearing, said Bertocci, who couldn’t recall the last time it had happened.

“It is a surprise,” she said.

At the company’s request, the board had sped up consideration of the application and prepared to start a week-long hearing Monday. About 100 witnesses are scheduled to testify, and two public hearings — in Calais and Eastport — are planned.

In requesting a delay, Calais LNG said it recognized the efforts by the BEP and its staff to expedite the application. But moving forward now would result in motions for a rehearing or appeals to Superior Court, the company said in its letter.

“We do not make this request lightly,” wrote David Van Slyke, a lawyer representing the company. “However, it has become apparent to Calais LNG that, given the complexity of the project and the speed with which these proceedings have progressed, certain relevant information has not been provided to the department, which may be perceived as a procedural flaw in this process.”

That information, he said, includes soils data along the pipeline route, wetlands analysis, historic-preservation requests and certain fisheries data.

“We’d rather take two months now and make sure the project is done right,” Van Slyke said in an interview Tuesday.

Calais LNG wants to build a gas delivery terminal on 330 acres along the St. Croix River, seven miles south of downtown Calais. The project calls for a 1,000-foot pier, two or three storage tanks and 20 miles of underground pipe connecting to the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline.

The terminal would have the capacity to move 1 billion cubic feet of gas daily, and be served on average by one or two tankers a week.

Developers and their supporters say the terminal would have multiple benefits. An in-state supply of natural gas would help lower Maine’s energy costs, they say, and would create jobs, encourage paper mills to switch from oil, and fuel electricity generators to balance the region’s expansion of wind energy. They plan to testify that those benefits can be achieved safely, without hurting the environment.

Critics plan to tell the board that new gas sources elsewhere reduce the need for a terminal in Maine. They also have prepared testimony about impacts on coastal wetlands and fishermen, and are poised to chronicle the potential hazards of large LNG tankers navigating Passamaquoddy Bay and the St. Croix River.

The panel has been reviewing thousands of pages of material and setting a schedule of formal testimony from about 100 witnesses. It has planned to decide the case by the end of this year.

Regardless of action by the BEP, at least three obstacles must be overcome before any LNG terminal gets built in Maine.

Primary oversight of LNG projects rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is reviewing the Calais application to determine whether to issue a permit.

Tankers would have to pass through New Brunswick to reach the terminal. The Canadian government has said repeatedly that it won’t allow ships carrying LNG to transit its waters. That dispute would have to be resolved.

Also, investors must decide that future economics and market conditions support a business case for a terminal.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]