Maine Community Beats Back Big Oil

 
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Maine Community Beats Back Big Oil
Companies Say They're Not Going Away

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2004; Page A03


HARPSWELL, Maine -- This small, coastal community a few miles east of Brunswick is an unlikely spot for a battle over industrialization. But the winding road into town makes it clear that residents have been in an uproar.

"The only natural gas in Harpswell should come as a direct result of a Saturday night baked bean suppah," declares one placard. "Say no to Foulwinds," another pleads.

On Tuesday, three-quarters of the town's voters turned out to reject, 55 percent to 45 percent, a proposal to allow two multinational energy companies to erect a $350 million liquefied natural gas processing plant on the shore of Middle Bay, an inlet off island-dotted Casco Bay. The project, which the companies call Fairwinds, would also have involved a docking facility for oceangoing tankers and a 40-mile underwater pipeline to link the plant with pipelines serving southern New England.

Although opponents here appear to have won the battle, the companies and their supporters said it was only the first round. They have at least 37 other sites in mind along this rocky, evergreen-covered stretch of Maine coast, and they said they are not going away.

Activists such as Harpswell's Jim Merryman, who has been lobstering in Casco Bay for a quarter of a century, spent months trying to head off the project.

"It's a fight between right and wrong," he said in an interview. "I won't be displaced from my lobster bottom."

Several other communities are also debating whether to allow tankers to thread the narrow, rocky channels of the Maine coast to deliver natural gas in exchange for the financial windfall being dangled by the companies. The result is a clash of cultures, economic interests and environmental concerns that is likely to be replayed numerous times; Harpswell, population 5,239, was just one skirmish.

The battle began last fall when TransCanada and ConocoPhillips made an offer: In exchange for a 30-year lease on a patch of land and waters just off the peninsula, the two firms would guarantee the town at least $8 million in fees a year, a sum equal to the town's annual budget.

The bitter dispute pitted neighbors and even relatives against one another. Opponents said a plant that would hold billions of cubic feet of highly flammable gas would be a major safety hazard and undermine the town's peaceful existence; supporters said it offered a financial lifeline to a community where property taxes have soared 42 percent in the past five years.

Both groups accused the other of vandalism and intimidation: Peter A. Micciche, who moved from Alaska to be the point man for the project and was branded "McChicken" by the other side, said someone scratched an "X" in the side of his car while he was in church; Bruce Dyer, a lobsterman who backed the project, said he was choked by a fellow lobsterman at one point. Elected officials did their share of sniping: During a televised meeting just days before the vote, the three elected selectmen who initially inked the deal personally attacked those who spoke out in opposition.

Craig Rogers, 45, a lobsterman having breakfast with friends Monday at Jack Baker's Last Stand, predicted the bitter rift would last "a lifetime."

"When you have a town where they've been doing the same thing for generations, change is the biggest thing to push down people's throats," Rogers said.

The two firms hoped to build a $350 million complex, complete with two storage tanks 280 feet tall and 130 feet wide. The tankers that would deliver the gas are as many as 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide.

The ships bring gas from the Middle East and Africa that has been cooled to a liquid at 260 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The plant would warm the liquid, turn it back into a gas, and then ship it through the pipeline to points south.

"It's a way for them to diversify the economy, to keep heavily taxed people in their homes," said Micciche, who has the title of stakeholder relations manager for Fairwinds.

Micciche, a commercial fisherman from Alaska before he took the job, spent the past several months promoting the Harpswell project. The company promised to deliver 900 jobs during the initial construction phase and nearly 50 jobs once the plant was up and running.

The company also pledged to restrict its tankers to a clearly marked channel and have them enter the harbor only between 1 p.m. and 3 a.m. to minimize the disruption to lobstermen.

"When we do our jobs well, no one realizes we're here," Micciche said.

But the very thing that made Harpswell attractive to ConocoPhillips and TransCanada -- the depth of its waters, proximity to an existing pipeline, and sparse population -- is what made some locals wary. They said the large ships, underwater pipeline and expanded security perimeter around the pier could take up as much as 30 percent of the lobstering grounds. Lobstering is by far Harpswell's biggest business, bringing in $10.2 million in 2002.

Because lobsters crawl along the sea floor, they added, the pipeline to Portland could potentially block their migration, which would make it difficult for them to spawn.

"Why should we destroy our small-business men?" asked Kay Ogrodnik, a retiree. "This is a fishing community, and the image of Maine could be changed forever."

The two sides also debated the potential safety hazards. Critics said an explosion like one that in Cleveland in 1944, killing 128 people and flattening two square blocks, could engulf nearby homes in flames, or that terrorists might target the plant for attack.

"Nothing's more important than the safety of my family," said Merryman, who lives with his wife and three daughters less than half a mile from the proposed site.

Micciche said such criticism is exaggerated. Methane gas, which is what constitutes liquefied natural gas, is lighter than air and disperses quickly, making it difficult to ignite, he said, adding: "It's a very safe way to transport energy."

The three bespectacled selectmen, all sporting jeans and button-down shirts, said in a joint interview that residents opposed to the project were naive.

"I have not a concern with safety, not a concern of putting one fisherman out of work," said Lee Theberge, a builder. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a town that is becoming unaffordable." Some people have begun building half-million- and million-dollar homes, he added, in a town where a quarter of all households earn $25,000 a year.

The lobstermen split into two camps, as did other residents. While Fairwinds had a clear financial advantage -- the companies poured in more than $500,000 to promote their proposal, compared with $130,000 raised by the other side with the help of a wealthy local family -- the opposition was well organized and vocal. Last month, more than 180 people attended a rally and formed a "human tanker"1,000 feet long to dramatize the size of the ships.

Voter interest was high: Of 4,700 registered voters, more than 1,650 voted absentee before the election.

Although the battle in Harpswell is over, similar fights are taking place elsewhere in the country. In Mobile, Ala., Exxon Mobil recently abandoned its bid for a gas-processing plant after local and state officials pressed for a safety study.

But ConocoPhillips and TransCanada are not giving up.

"We're going to regroup and reassess," said Micciche, adding that there was "a good possibility" the company would simply try another spot in Maine.



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