Natural Gas Pipeline Crews Begin Digging in Bucksport
By Adam Day

BUCKSPORT—The Northeast natural gas pipeline has reached Hancock County.

Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline, the company building the line, is now constructing a 200-mile section from Westbrook to Baileyville. The pipeline will cross the Penobscot River in Bucksport, then continue east to Washington County.

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Drilling equipment housed in this tent on Route 15 digs deep under the Penobscot River to lay the Northeast natural gas pipeline. A computer-guided auger will drill a long, arching shaft 100 feet below the river bottom at successively wider diameters and then pull through a 24-inch diameter steel pipe. The starter shaft is now halfway across the 3,000-foot span. The project should be completed by July.

The $1.2 billion project will bring natural gas from Sable Island, Nova Scotia, to industrial and residential consumers in New England. The entire line of 24-inch-diameter steel pipe will be buried at least 3 feet underground, according to Pam Cahill, a community relations representative for Maritimes & Northeast.

Last week, Michels Pipeline Construction of Brownsville, Wis., started drilling a 3,000-foot horizontal shaft under the Penobscot.

The drill head of three interlocking steel cones with teeth carries the bedrock back through the drill shaft to the surface.

A large tent beside Route 15 has been erected over the dig to shelter drilling equipment and muffle the noise.

In the tent, within a trailer full of portable computers, charts and a joystick console, engineers guide the drill in a long arch 100 feet below the river bed. After passing through the shaft with a succession of increasingly large drill bits, a steel pipe will be pulled through it, according to Paul Krings, a directional drilling specialist with Michels Pipeline Construction. At several stages in the project, the pipe is pressure-tested to ensure there are no leaks.

Ironically, the horizontal shaft-digging technology being used was developed by the oil industry—perhaps the fiercest of the natural gas industry’s competitors.

The Penobscot River project will take two to three months, according to Stone Broadway, a chief inspector at Maritimes & Northeast.

When the Penobscot dig is completed, the pipeline will then continue underground, generally following existing power line corridors east toward Baileyville in Washington County, according to Brian Prenda, spokesman for Maritimes & Northeast.

Prenda said his company has reached agreements with landowners on more than 93 percent of the land involved in the pipeline.

However, with its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission project approval, Maritimes and Northeast is exempt from municipal planning board review and has the power of eminent domain to secure easements on all the land necessary to complete the project.

"We have tried to minimize our use of eminent domain, because we have good faith in the landowners...and when it’s completed, the pipeline will be a catalyst for economic development in the region," Prenda said.

Bucksport Town Manager Roger Raymond concurred that any local control was a moot point.

"There is not much we can do, it’s not in our jurisdiction," he said. But the company did have to pay Bucksport $10 for a temporary structure permit for its tent.

But state Representative Edward Povich, D-Ellsworth, while attending an Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday, said there has been tension between some residents and the federally sanctioned pipeline company.

"I know landowners have quarreled with the tactics of Maritimes and Northeast as they continue the pipeline," he said.

Planning on the line’s inevitable completion, the Bangor Gas Co. could provide natural gas to the greater Bangor area as early as this November, according to Jonathan Kunz, manager of marketing and sales for Bangor Gas.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission has approved the Bangor Gas plan, which would supply natural gas to residential and commercial users in Bangor, Brewer, Orono, Old Town and Veazie, Kunz said.

Work crews will begin burying gas lines on June 1, he said.

The second phase of the Bangor Gas project could bring service to Milford, Bradley, Eddington, Orrington, Hampden, Hermon and Bucksport by November 2000.

He said the company is still negotiating to build a lateral connection to Champion International’s proposed natural gas turbine.

With the potential for natural gas service on the horizon, some critics and competitors are questioning the merits of the venture.

At Tuesday’s chamber breakfast, Gene Guilford, president of the Maine Oil Dealers Association, gave a talk contending that the promised benefits of the pipeline to Maine consumers may never materialize.

According to Guilford, Bangor Gas filed a 10-year rate plan with the Maine PUC that indicates natural gas rates will increase.

"You’ll be paying fire sale prices in the beginning, but you could be paying higher costs five years into the future," he said.

Guilford said that better information was needed so that consumers can decide which energy source is the cheapest and cleanest. He challenged common assumptions that natural gas burns cleaner and more efficiently than oil.

At present, Maine has the fourth-highest cost for natural gas in the U.S., he said, but is 45th in the nation for oil costs.

However, Kunz, who prior to working for Bangor Gas spent 15 years in the heating oil business, rebutted many of the claims put forth by the Maine Oil Dealer’s Association.

He said Bangor Gas has only a five-year price plan approved by the PUC and that the pricing is conservative because of the difficulty in estimating market share.

"If an oilman had an 80,000-gallon truck and only one customer, he couldn’t sell it for 80 cents a gallon," he said.

As the market opens up, prices will be increasingly competitive, he said. Once the pipeline is in place, any company can sell gas through it by paying a tariff.

"Other companies want us to get the customers and then they’ll come in and offer lower prices," he said.

In 10 years, Kunz said he expects natural gas will have between 30 and 40 percent of the residential energy market.

As to the contention that oil is on par with natural gas, he said, "it’s total malarkey. There’s no way that heating oil burns cleaner than natural gas," he said.

Kunz said 69 percent of new homes in the U.S. use natural gas and that it burns efficiently and produces less carbon-based greenhouse gas emissions than oil.



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