It is important that residents of and businesses in Maine – and everywhere else – reduce the use of fossil fuels in response to the growing climate crisis.

From an emissions standpoint, switching midcoast Maine residents to electrified heat, then using renewable methods to generate electricity, would be preferable to natural gas. But that’s a complex undertaking that would likely take a long time to complete. And that deal is not on the table – the choice is between continuing the status quo or adding natural gas capacity. isak55/Shutterstock.com

But as people in the midcoast region found out this week, that’s not as simple as it sounds.

Less than a month ago, Summit Natural Gas of Maine announced plans for a $90 million pipeline expansion in the Belfast area.

The expansion, the company said, would cut carbon emissions by an estimated 263,000 metric tons over the first five years as customers switched from heating oil to natural gas. One business that wanted to switch, Dragon Products cement plant in Thomaston, would replace the high-carbon petroleum coke, along with shredded tires and carpet, that it now burns.

However, Summit withdrew the plan this week after the company encountered opposition from environmental activists and community members dedicated to bringing more renewable energy to the region, not just cleaner fossil fuels.

That’s a noble goal. But it’s unclear if it’s the right one.

Compared to the status quo, Summit’s proposal would have cut emissions – according to the company’s estimates, by the equivalent of taking more than 56,000 cars off the road.

However, if we are serious about heading off the effects of climate change, there is no long-term future for natural gas. Maine’s goal is 100 percent renewable energy. What is the sense in building new pipelines for fossil fuels, even if it would cut emissions in the immediate future?

The timing makes these sort of choices difficult. Clearly, from an emissions standpoint, switching people in the midcoast area to electrified heat, then using renewable methods to generate electricity, would be preferable to natural gas.

But that’s a complex and costly undertaking that would likely take a long time to complete. And in any case, that deal is not on the table – the choice is between continuing the status quo or adding natural gas capacity.

In some ways, it is similar to the fight over New England Clean Energy Connect, which would bring Canadian hydropower paid for by Massachusetts through Maine to the New England grid.

The plan has split environmentalists, with some siding with natural gas companies to argue against the project. They say, among other things, that the hydropower in the deal is not as clean as it is portrayed to be.

But is it cleaner than natural gas? The NECEC project is set to replace power lost to the grid by the closure of a nuclear power plant. In the meantime, gas-fired plants are picking up the slack – emitting more carbon in the process.

It’s not the last time Maine communities will have to weigh such complex trade-offs. To reach its ambitious climate goals, the state will need to electrify everything, particularly transportation and heating. That transition will require a lot more electricity.

That leaves us to grapple with how to produce it. Solar power projects are proliferating after recent law changes, raising not only hopes about local distributed power networks but also concerns about whether the grid can handle it.

If so, will only renewable sources of power be approved? After all, as far as emissions go, a car running on natural gas-fired electricity is cleaner than one running on gasoline – though not as clean as one running on solar or wind power.

Does Maine try to steadily improve, cutting emissions here and there as it can, or does it hold out for more transformational change?

Some form of that question is bound to come up again and again throughout Maine. The communities that face them are going to need better answers.


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