Steel pipe meant to become part of a natural gas pipeline. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― Some leaders in the midcoast are relieved that Summit Natural Gas has canceled its plans to expand service to the region and are hopeful that conversations around renewable energy opportunities continue.

Less than a month after announcing the project, Summit officials said Tuesday that the company is no longer pursuing a $90 million pipeline expansion that would have brought natural gas service to communities in Knox and Waldo counties for the first time.

The proposal was met with huge opposition among residents and leaders in the region who felt the development of a fossil fuel project would be taking a step backwards when it came to planning a future built on renewable energy. Many were relieved that Summit canceled the plans on its own after hearing the concerns.

“As a region, I think we realize that we are too dependent on oil and we want to change. Natural gas is not the way to get us off oil. It’s another fossil fuel. It’s just not the right direction to go in at this point,” Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, said. “I appreciate that [Summit] said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right decision.’”

The project was slated to bring natural gas service to upwards of 6,500 customers in Belfast, Camden, Rockport, Rockland, Thomaston and possibly Northport and Lincolnville over the next five years. However, many town leaders felt that the project was at odds with goals the municipalities had set to prioritize investing renewable sources of energy.

In Thomaston, residents have expressed an interest in moving toward 100-percent reliance on renewable energy, as outlined in the town’s comprehensive plan which was updated last year. The town is currently working to build a solar array that will cover the electricity needs for municipal buildings.

“In hearing that Summit decided not to pursue the project, I think it was a good decision because I struggled to see how it would fit into Thomaston’s goals,” Thomaston Select Board member Zel Bowman-Laberge said.

Leaders in Rockland were already gearing up to potentially fight the expansion. While it is unclear if the project could have been stopped from the local level, some leaders felt that Summit would have faced increasing resistance if they continued with the expansion project.

“I’m pleased that they’re not pursuing this project,” Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis said. “I knew they’d have a tough road ahead of them and I was skeptical of the project’s chances for success in the long term. But I was surprised they canceled it so quickly.”

However, not everyone in the region was happy to hear the news, including some businesses that were looking forward to the cost savings that switching to natural gas would have generated.

Front Street Shipyard in Belfast has been looking to make the switch from propane to natural gas for years. With Summit canceling its expansion, the shipyard’s plans to convert to natural gas have been dashed. Owner JB Turner said he is in favor of renewable forms of energy, but that realistically some fossil fuels need to be used until renewable sources are available on a larger scale.

“I’m just a little sad,” Turner said. “It’s not like we’re not trying to do solar and other things as well. But you’re going to have to use some fossil fuels.”

But the argument that natural gas is just “another option,” doesn’t make sense for Lincolnville Selectman Josh Gerritsen. He said it’s one thing if it’s just a matter of choosing between propane or natural gas that is delivered by a truck. But the permanency of a pipeline is worrisome, he said.

“We’re talking about digging up the ground and putting in a multimillion dollar pipeline,” Gerritsen said. “It’s such a big step toward an option that doesn’t really let you back out of it.”

While the pipeline project sparked controversy in the region, it also sparked a larger conversation about how midcoast communities want to focus on renewable forms of energy and curb climate change.

Both Davis and Bowman-Laberge said they hope to see more regional cooperation on energy projects come out of this.

“When different towns work together, we have a collective voice,” Bowman-Laberge said. “I’m very optimistic about the future of what we might accomplish.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Josh Gerritsen’s last name.