Roughly 14 years ago, I persuaded a lobsterman to take me out to his fishing grounds off Saint John, New Brunswick. I was there to write about the development of a new liquefied natural gas import terminal built by Irving Oil, New Brunswick’s largest company, and Repsol, the Spanish multinational energy company.

The 600-foot-long New England, a tanker operated by Irving Oil, unloads its cargo at the Buckeye-Irving terminal in South Portland on Oct. 23, after sailing from Irving’s refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Maine gets more than 80% of its gasoline and heating oil from Canada, and much of it comes from Irving’s Canaport crude oil terminal. Tux Turkel/Staff Writer, File

Why did I want to write about this project? Because some of the gas being brought from overseas was going to be injected into a recently built pipeline system running through Maine. It was going to be an important, new source of energy for us.

The lobsterman was concerned about how LNG tanker traffic might affect his livelihood. He already had to live with the parade of supertankers that arrived next door at Irving’s Canaport crude oil terminal, the largest in Canada.

I didn’t realize it then, but that’s where an even bigger story was taking place.

The crude arriving at Canaport is pumped to Irving’s refinery, 5 miles away. Some comes back in the form of gasoline, heating oil and jet fuel, to be delivered by smaller tankers.

Here’s what I overlooked, 14 years ago. A critical share of that production is exported to Maine, in ships that dock in South Portland, Bucksport and Bangor. Today, Maine gets more than 80% of its gasoline and heating oil from Canada, and much of it comes from Canaport.


Did you fill your car with gasoline today? Even if you didn’t go to an Irving station, one of which seems to be on almost every corner in Maine, there’s a decent chance you went to one that buys its gas from an Irving terminal.

Tankers shuttle refined petroleum products, such as heating oil and gasoline, from Saint John to Portland Harbor year round. Last fall, when I was writing about heating oil prices, I photographed the 600-foot-long oil tanker New England unloading at the Buckeye-Irving terminal. If you happen to drive across the Fore River on Interstate 295, glance toward the harbor and the tank farms. Maybe you’ll spot one of the Irving ships in port.

I’m relating the Canaport story to make a point. Mainers like to think of themselves as an independent bunch. When it comes to energy, though, we’re not as self-reliant as we may think we are, or as we’re striving to be.


Let’s stick with gasoline and heating oil for a minute.

We’ve established that the gas you’re pumping likely came from Canada. But Irving doesn’t publicize where the crude comes from.


We can assume some comes from tar sands in Alberta. Ten years ago, the Canadian company now called TC Energy Corp. wanted to build a pipeline running from Alberta east to Canaport. Plans were dropped in 2017, following strong opposition. In desperation, some tar sands crude has since been shipped from British Columbia through the Panama Canal and up the East Coast to Saint John, a trip that takes a month.

However, Canada’s federal energy regulator says the majority of Canaport’s crude comes from non-Canadian sources. That suggests a lot of the gasoline we put in our cars comes from crude oil that originated overseas.

Our dependence will ease as more Mainers drive electric cars. But unless you have solar panels and live off the grid, you’re connected to New England’s electric transmission system. Except on sunny days, you’re charging your battery-powered vehicle with a mix of energy sources at different times of the day and the year.

Maine is part of ISO-New England, the independent system operator of the six-state electric grid. Power flows back and forth, with generators dispatched based on winning bid prices in a competitive marketplace.

The biggest year-round fuel source for power generation is natural gas, used to generate half the region’s electricity. Most of it comes from domestic pipelines into New England. But on the coldest days, some comes from the Caribbean, through Boston Harbor and Saint John. And when it’s so cold that there’s not enough natural gas for both heating and power production, or when wholesale gas prices are especially high, our generation mix can also include oil. Some may come from Maine’s own Wyman Station power plant in Yarmouth.

You can see this generation mix every minute of the day, via a pie chart on ISO-New England’s website. I watched how this played out in December, and it’s quite revealing. Here are two examples.


• Dec. 7: Warm and rainy, 50 degrees in Boston. New England’s generating mix was dominated, as it typically is, by natural gas, at 40%. Next was nuclear power at 24%; imports from Canada at 19%, and domestic hydro at 9%. Other renewables, led by wind, contributed 8%.

• Dec. 25: A frigid, partly-sunny Christmas morning, with Boston temperatures in the teens. Oil was the top fuel, at 31%, because on that day it was cheaper than natural gas. Oil was followed by nuclear, at 22%. Natural gas was a low 18%. Canadian imports were next, at 11%, followed by domestic hydro at 10%. Other renewables were contributing 7% to the mix. Of that, 38% came from wind farms; 30% from waste-to-energy plants, 22% from biomass and 7% % from solar.

ISO-New England also tracks carbon dioxide emissions. On that cold Christmas morning, a very high 222 metric tons of CO2 were being emitted, of which 174 metric tons were attributed to oil.

The stage for this situation was set on Christmas Eve, when some generators in the region were unable to meet their contract obligations. To ensure enough capacity reserves, ISO-New England called on oil plants, estimating this month that they burned 31 million gallons during the period.

So there we were. Burning dirty, climate-changing oil to keep the lights on.



While their contributions and sources vary, Canadian imports can include: From Quebec, hydroelectricity sent into Vermont. From New Brunswick, oil-fired power from Coleson Cove, a plant similar to Wyman Station; coal generation from Belledune, a plant in the north, and nuclear power from Point Lepreau, a reactor near Saint John.

Hold on. More than 70% of Maine’s in-state electricity generation came from renewable sources last year. Our legacy hydroelectric dams generated roughly a quarter of that total, followed closely by a new energy source for Maine, wind power. Biomass supplied one-fifth, although that share will need adjusting because some wood-fired plants have shut down.

Yes, large-scale solar farms are popping up in fields across Maine. But as of last year, they supplied only about 3% of the total in-state production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the data-collecting arm of the Department of Energy.

So despite the growth of renewables, Maine doesn’t generate enough power for all its needs. We still get 30% or so from the New England grid and from Canada. And obviously we can’t rely on wind when it’s calm, or on solar at night or on stormy days. Energy storage will change this someday, but large-scale, long-duration storage is a way off.

Meanwhile, 40% of the state’s total energy needs are satisfied by petroleum, with 60% going to fuel motor vehicles. Six out of 10 Maine homes still use oil or kerosene as their primary heating fuel, the highest share in the country. So when it comes to weaning the state off the carbon-based fuels that contribute to climate change, it’s complicated.

This winter is showing us just how complicated and volatile things are.


• Heating oil: Statewide average prices peaked at $5.71 a gallon in mid-November. They backed off below $4.50 in early January, but are still high.

• Electricity supply: The best PUC-negotiated standard offer bid is 50% higher than last year, going to 17.6 cents per kilowatt-hour. That pushes the total, average CMP home bill to $154 a month.

• Gasoline: Prices have been sliding. The statewide AAA average was $3.40 in early January, down 33 cents from a month earlier.

Heat, light and transportation. Most Mainers are affected by at least two of these three necessities. Experts sometimes call it the total household energy burden.


Maine voters rejected 1,200 megawatts of power from Quebec over the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect line. Some didn’t want more clear-cut corridors through western Maine. Others doubted all the power would come from hydro. Some people just don’t like Central Maine Power. Everything’s on hold until April, when the case is scheduled for trial.


Meanwhile, construction has started on a project that will carry roughly the same amount of electricity 339 miles, from Quebec to New York City. The Champlain Hudson Express is part of New York state’s plan to get 70% of its power from renewables by 2030. But there’s a major difference: All the transmission lines will be underwater or underground.

Closer to home, there’s a new proposal for another Maine transmission line. The Public Utilities Commission has tentatively approved contracts for 1,000 megawatts of wind power over a line connecting Aroostook County. Last month, Massachusetts agreed to buy up to 40% of the output. Now it’s up to the PUC to determine if the deal is good enough for Maine electric customers.

What’s more, Wyman Station is poised to run more often. The 610-megawatt, oil-fired plant came online in 1978 but has been mostly idle recent years, It was too expensive compared to natural gas, but that changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook up exports markets.

Three times over the past few months, oil barges were unloading at Wyman. On the coldest days this winter, look for a big plume of smoke over Casco Bay. Air pollution and climate change will be a secondary concern. Wyman will be helping to keep the lights on.

Also helping will be liquefied natural gas, with tankers loaded in Trinidad and Tobago sailing 2,200 miles to Boston Harbor. At a time when American natural gas is being exported around the world at record levels, New England has a dubious distinction. It’s the only part of the mainland United States that needs to import LNG from other countries. That dependence is making Maine electric bills rise this winter.

Juxtapose all this against Maine Won’t Wait, the state’s 2-year-old Climate Action Plan. It aims to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions in the state by 45% by 2030 and 80% by 2050, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.


The plan calls for at least 100,000 new heat pumps by 2025. It aims to weatherize 7,000 homes by 2025, and 35,000 by 2030. Some of these goals will benefit from the new federal Inflation Reduction Act, which will funnel millions of dollars to Maine. But between the cost of the measures, the available workforce, supply chain issues and other obstacles, these upgrades will take time.

Where does it all leave us? In a difficult transition, where local aspirations are clashing with global market realities. We want to control our own energy destiny. We want to get our energy from local sources that don’t worsen climate change. We want to phase out imported fuels that, excluding Canadian hydro, are largely petroleum based.

In short, Mainers are witnessing, and coping with, a historic shift in how we use energy to power our lives, where that energy comes from and what it costs. The only thing that seems certain is the uncertainty over how it will all play out.

This piece is adapted from a Camden Conference presentation that will be offered via Zoom on Thursday. For more information, visit

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