Thursday, May 23, 2013
BY KEITH EDWARDS Staff Writer
AUGUSTA -- The city will not get involved with Kennebec Valley's natural gas war.
A high-density polyethylene gas pipeline — similar to what would be built in the Augusta area distribution system — is seen during the expansion of a system in Freeport.
Photo courtesy of Iberdrola USA
Staff graphic by Sharon Wood
Late Thursday night, city councilors debated and later rejected City Manager William Bridgeo's proposal to file as an intervenor in an ongoing dispute between two companies seeking to build a natural gas pipeline into Augusta.
Bridgeo and other city officials said they don't care which company builds the pipeline, just that whichever does is required, by the state bid requirements, to bring a natural gas pipeline not just to state property, but to residential, commercial and governmental entities throughout the Kennebec Valley who want it.
However, city councilors said Thursday they didn't want to get involved in the state bidding and appeals process.
"The more the debate continues the more I'm convinced we should not enter it,” Councilor Patrick Paradis said. “There is a healthy debate going on at the State House over this, where it properly belongs. I was elected by the people of Ward 3 of this city to look out for their interests and their interests alone. It makes me uncomfortable to intervene, and create uncertainty.”
Summit Natural Gas has appealed the state's selection of competitor Maine Natural Gas to build a natural gas pipeline from Windsor to state property in Augusta. The state is scheduled to consider Summit's appeal Aug. 14 and 15.
Councilor Michael Byron was the lone councilor to vote to have the city file as an intervenor in the appeal. Byron said a larger pipeline project would benefit the entire region's economy.
And as the region does better, he said, so does Augusta.
"I've been on this council seven years and this is the most important vote I will take,” Byron said. “It's so important to do something for our constituents, provide them with jobs. Years from now, if we don't intervene, we're going to rue this day.”
Bridgeo said intervenor status would give the city standing to add its voice to the state's review process. Bridgeo said the city would essentially encourage state officials to reject the bids, start over and issue a request for proposals specifying the winning bidder must agree to build a natural gas pipeline system throughout the Kennebec Valley.
Maine Natural Gas officials, before the council vote Thursday, said the process the state used to select Maine Natural Gas was fair and unbiased and warned rebidding the state contract to require the pipeline to serve communities where it may not be economically feasible could both delay the arrival of natural gas in Augusta and make gas rates for potential customers in Augusta higher, because the cost of the overall project would be higher.
They also said they intend to expand their proposed pipeline north and south of Augusta as soon as possible.
Roy Lane, who is responsible for sales at Maine Natural Gas, said the firm, in the last couple of weeks, talked with officials of the city of Waterville, Huhtamaki mill, Colby College, Thomas College, Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, Inland Hospital in Waterville and the town of Madison, and has plans to meet with Madison Paper and Backyard Farms in Madison this month, to discuss the potential to bring natural gas to them.
"Our goal is to extend our service not only to Augusta, but to other communities in the Kennebec Valley," Lane told city councilors. But, he said, the state's request for proposals only required bidders to agree to build a pipeline to state property, big enough to expand in the future.
Barry McCrum, a principal of Maine Energy Development Group, representing Summit, said the company's bid was based on what it thought was a requirement of the state's bid request to provide natural gas to the entire Kennebec Valley, not just state property in Augusta. He said the state should clarify what, exactly, it's looking for and seek new bids.
"Our conclusion was the (state's request) was not just for state facilities but for the entire Kennebec Valley, we based our bid entirely on that, and that's why we're appealing," McCrum said. "Their bid was based only on serving state office buildings. It's an apples and oranges type situation. We felt the (state's request) was ambiguous."
Bridgeo said city officials in Gardiner and Hallowell have also expressed interest in their cities filing as intervenors in the state review process.
Maine Natural Gas, proposed a $19.3 million project creating 46 jobs, focused mainly on providing natural gas to state buildings in the Augusta area and expanding farther north only if there's sufficient demand to justify expansion costs. Summit's proposed investment totals over $150 million, with service to 15,000 customers within three years and 435 jobs created.
Keith Edwards -- 621-5647