Continued delay in building a new pumping station in Massachusetts for natural gas bound for Maine could lead to higher prices for heat and electricity, if the station isn’t finished before the 2019 heating season.

Plans to fully open the Atlantic Bridge pipeline project next month and send lower-cost gas from Pennsylvania north have been stalled by ongoing opposition to building a large compressor station in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The compressor is needed to maintain sufficient pressure for delivering gas to customers in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, according to Enbridge Inc., the Calgary-based fossil fuels company that took over the project after merging with Spectra Energy last year. The project is intended to expand capacity along existing pipelines.

The southern end of Atlantic Bridge through Connecticut will go into service in November as planned, according to Marylee Hanley, an Enbridge spokeswoman. North of Massachusetts, Atlantic Bridge will reverse the flow of the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline to bring gas from Pennsylvania into Maine and beyond. Service in Maine and Atlantic Canada is expected in the second half of 2018, she said.

That’s a year later than targeted for the $1 billion project. The compressor dispute is now in federal court, and if the compressor fight drags on another year, experts say, the region may need to bring in gas over other pipelines and through additional overseas deliveries of liquefied natural gas. Both alternatives would be more expensive and would cost customers more money, although there’s no way now to know how much.

Hanley said she wouldn’t speculate about what would happen if the compressor is delayed further or not built.

“Maritimes will continue to meet its contractual obligations to existing customers,” she said. “Maritimes’ customers have been and will continue to be able to source natural gas from U.S. and western Canadian producers, as well as imported LNG.”

SUPPLY SHIFTS

The role of Atlantic Bridge came into sharper focus for Maine this month, when ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell notified Canadian energy regulators that they will drop their delivery rights on the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline when their contracts expire in late 2019, Natural Gas Intelligence reported. ExxonMobil and Shell are the lead owners of the Sable Offshore Energy Project, which has been sending natural gas south into New England since 1999. But Nova Scotia’s undersea gas deposits turned out to be smaller than projected, and the industry has known for years that commercial production was coming to an end.

The impact in New England was blunted by discoveries of plentiful, low-cost gas in Appalachian shale deposits. Getting it into the region, however, has been another matter.

A contractor installs a distribution line in Hallowell for Summit Natural Gas in 2013. A large compressor station in Weymouth, Mass., is needed to maintain sufficient pressure for delivering natural gas to customers in Maine. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Facing opposition from residents, clean-energy activists and politicians, developers gave up over the past two years on two multibillion dollar pipelines – Northeast Energy Direct and Access Northeast. Issues including resistance to the techniques used to extract shale gas, support for renewables over fossil fuels and community concerns along the pipeline routes combined to put major pipeline expansion on hold.

The Weymouth compressor is an example of a local fight with a regionwide impact.

Enbridge chose Weymouth in part because it’s the right location on the pipeline network from an operations standpoint. It wants to build a 7,700-horsepower compressor station next to an existing power plant.

But opponents say the compressor will create noise, pollution and a safety risk in a densely populated area. South Shore residents have formed a resistance group – Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station – and a division of Enbridge has taken the town and the Weymouth Conservation Commission to court over its refusal to grant a building permit. It’s arguing that federal approval to build interstate pipeline projects preempts local authority.

ALTERNATIVE ROUTES TO MARKET

If or when the station is finally built, it will be part of a pair of relatively modest upgrades to pipelines and compressor stations running through southern New England.

The first upgrade was the $972 million Algonquin Incremental Market project, which went into service last fall. It increased the region’s pipeline capacity for the first time since 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The expansion provided an additional 342 million cubic feet of gas a day.

Atlantic Bridge will add another 137 million cubic feet a day. But taken together, these two projects have only a modest impact on supply. For comparison, the region burns roughly 4.5 billion cubic feet on a winter’s day, equal to 31 million gallons of heating oil.

They also won’t provide enough new capacity to shrink the wide differences in the price of gas – and the electricity made by gas-fired power plants – between New England and states to the south.

Atlantic Bridge will just about equal the current, dwindling gas flow from Nova Scotia on the Maritimes line, according to Rich Silkman, a managing partner at Competitive Energy Services in Portland.

“The net effect will be close to zero,” he said.

If Atlantic Bridge is stalled into 2019, Silkman said, Appalachian gas could be routed through Ontario and Quebec and into western Maine on the Portland National Gas Transmission System pipeline, which connects with the Maritimes line in Westbrook. That roundabout path has been used in recent years but increases the cost of gas, according to Silkman, an economist and national expert on gas markets.

Atlantic Bridge customers on the Maritimes line are distribution companies, power plants and a paper mill. They include Bangor Gas, Casco Bay Energy, Maine Natural Gas, Summit Natural Gas of Maine, Woodland Pulp and Unitil, which is an “anchor” participant in the project.

Unitil, the parent company of Northern Utilities, has 27,000 customers in Maine, the bulk of the state’s 33,000 natural gas residential customers. Additionally, there are roughly 12,300 commercial and industrial customers.

Unitil currently is getting most of its gas from western Canada, not Nova Scotia, according to Alec O’Meara, a Unitil spokesman, so Sable’s phase-out won’t affect its portfolio. Atlantic Bridge will boost Unitil’s supply by around 10 percent, he said, which will help serve growth in natural gas customers and lower overall prices in the region by increasing capacity.

LNG from the Canaport terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick, also flows into New England on cold winter days when demand is high for homes, factories and power plants. Some LNG would be needed regardless of Atlantic Bridge, but more could be imported, according to Stephen Leahy, vice president of policy and analysis at the Northeast Gas Association, which promotes the fuel in the region. The problem, he said, is that the cost would be higher.

“It would be a real challenge for Maine energy consumers to have a restricted gas supply,” Leahy said. “It would put pressure on the market and result in higher prices.”

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

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