Bangor Natural Gas and other construction crews prepare the side of Bennoch Road for natural gas pipeline installation in this October 2013 file photo. Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

Maine’s ratepayer advocate has angered the fossil-fuel sector by floating a ban on new natural gas pipelines, a move that will lead to charged conversations about the state’s energy future.

The bill from Public Advocate William Harwood is backed by environmental groups and would ban any new natural gas pipelines from being constructed outside existing service areas. It would also have the Maine Public Utilities Commission publish a study on how natural gas fits into Maine’s climate goals that same year.

Natural gas is used to generate around 50 percent of the power that New England consumes. Other than wood, it is the cheapest source of heating fuel in Maine right now but is a relatively new part of the energy mix here. That has made new pipelines controversial because the fossil fuels are directly competing with cleaner emerging sources like wind and solar.

The bill would bring to Maine the type of conversation that has happened in progressive areas across the country. Earlier this year, New York became the first state to ban gas stoves in new residential buildings, and Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to phase out natural gas more widely. Conservative states have struck back by prohibiting cities from instituting bans.

Harwood’s main worry is that Mainers will transition from natural gas to renewables in the coming years but remain on the hook for costs associated with maintaining the pipelines.

“So the question is, can we continue with a business as usual approach?” he said. “I think it’s very important that we study the future of natural gas in Maine.”

There are four natural gas utilities in Maine, with major service areas in southern Maine, the Bangor area and the Kennebec Valley region. Construction began a decade ago on the pipeline network in the latter region that is now run by Summit Natural Gas of Maine.

Given that ratepayers in Maine are dealing with a cost-of-living crisis, Lizzy Reinholt, a Summit spokesperson, said Harwood’s proposal seems shortsighted especially given the company’s efforts on ways to reduce emissions. It just spent $20 million on a dairy digestion project in central Maine, capturing the methane released from farms’ manure and recycling it.

“We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the state in recent years to expand pipeline access to gas with an effort to bring more energy choices to communities, help consumers lower their carbon footprint by converting them to a lower carbon fuel source, and also help support economic development,” Reinholt said.

Gov. Janet Mills will be a key player on this issue. During her 2022 campaign, she signed an “energy choice” pledge from a fossil-fuel interest group. Earlier this year, she criticized community opposition that tanked a past Summit proposal for a midcoast gas line after it was noted as a factor in the planned closure of a Thomaston cement plant.

The Democratic governor’s policy office did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal. But Harwood and environmentalists are citing her climate pledges as reasons for the shift after she proposed fully powering Maine with clean energy by 2040 in a March speech.

Those goals don’t square up with natural gas expanding in Maine, argued Jack Shapiro, the clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Emissions from natural gas consumption represented 80 percent of direct fossil fuel emissions from residential and commercial sources in 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found this fall.

“I think this bill would take an important look at the role of natural gas in our energy system, especially the long term ratepayer risks of stranded assets as we make our transition to clean energy, but also the health impacts that come along with burning fossil fuels inside the home,” he said.

Zara Norman joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023 after a year reporting for the Morning Sentinel. She lives in Waterville and graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2022.