January 11, 2013

Panel approves new pipeline through central Maine

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Summit Natural Gas of Maine on Thursday won the approval of the state Public Utilities Commission to provide natural gas through a pipeline in 17 central Maine communities.

Colorado-based Summit joins Maine Natural Gas, which won the PUC's approval long ago and has already begun laying pipeline in the ground in Augusta. It's part of the race to supply natural gas to customers throughout the Kennebec region, including Augusta, Fairfield, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Madison, Richmond, Skowhegan, Waterville and Winslow.

"Obviously, we're very pleased with the decision and we're looking forward to getting on with this project, starting construction, and starting to bring service to the Kennebec Valley," said Tim Johnston, executive vice president of Summit Natural Gas of Maine, a subsidiary of Summit Utilities. "We've started the permitting process. Our intention is to start laying pipe as soon as the weather permits -- this spring."

Johnston said construction will start with bringing the pipeline from an existing pipe in Windsor into Augusta. He said the company's goal will be to run the steel main line and a significant portion of a large-diameter polyethylene line that will be the backbone of its distribution system this year.

He said as many as 400 contract workers could be working on the system this year, completing multiple sections at once.

Meanwhile, officials at Maine Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Iberdrola USA, which is also the parent company of Central Maine Power, expressed concerns about having two pipeline companies competing for customers in the same area. That could lead to inefficient duplication of infrastructure and even put public safety at risk, the firm said.

Dan Hucko, spokesman for Maine Natural Gas, said the two companies could have pipe running along the same roads, such as Route 17 from Windsor to Augusta.

"With two pipelines so close together, the danger of dig-in is increased greatly -- they could be working on their line and dig into our line and damage it," Hucko said. "And if there is a problem with one of the lines, and there is a leak, there could be confusion and delays in getting that corrected. There could be confusion over who to call. And delay could cause disaster. We're a bit disappointed those issues weren't discussed more fully."

Johnston said the safety aspects can be handled and the Public Utilities Commission is requiring the firms to put together rules for how they will operate when there are dual systems in the same area.

"We're both regulated utilities, we'll make the system safe," Johnston said. "When we build now, we're already building around underground sewer and water lines, which is going to worry me more. A polyethylene gas line is more rugged and flexible than a water or sewer line. From a construction standpoint, having that extra gas line isn't going to affect much."

Competition encouraged

William Black, an attorney for the state Public Advocate Office, said procedures will be established for situations where both companies will be burying pipe along the same streets to make sure it is done safely and costs are shared between the two companies fairly.

The state Public Advocate Office was an intervenor in the case and also signed off on the agreement approved by the PUC on Thursday.

"Maine and the Kennebec Valley are fortunate to have two companies seeking to provide gas," Black said.

Black said the Legislature established a system in which two natural gas companies can be authorized and compete against each other in Maine. Even so, he acknowledged that the public advocate, at the time those statutes were adopted, recommended against such a system.

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