HARPSWELL, Maine - Residents in this fishing town near Brunswick are whispering about a plan that seems almost too good to be true. It could pay for nearly the entire annual town budget every year. Property taxes could drop. There is talk of new bike paths and even an indoor town pool.
The catch: The town must vote to allow huge tankers filled with super-condensed natural gas to dock in their clear, rocky bay.
Two energy companies are proposing to turn Harpswell's abandoned Navy fuel depot into one of the few liquified natural gas terminals in the United States, with a pair of 120-foot-tall storage containers, a gasification plant, and a pipeline to pump the fuel into the nation's natural-gas network. Tankers would arrive every four to nine days loaded with enough gas to heat at least 32,000 homes for a year. In exchange, the companies are offering the tiny town at least $8 million a year.
"It's neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend," said Robert Anderson, a former lobsterman and editor of the Harpswell Anchor, a monthly newspaper that has been flooded with letters both for and against the terminal. A vote is expected this winter.
The prospect splitting Harpswell's 4,600 voters - and many nonvoting summer residents - is playing out in coastal communities across the United States, as the country's energy appetite shifts toward liquefied natural gas, or LNG. There are now at least 36 new LNG terminals proposed throughout the country, including five in New England: Harpswell, Somerset, Providence, Fall River and, as of two weeks ago, Maine's Sears Island.
Only four such facilities exist in the United States, including an Everett terminal that was shuttered for a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because of terrorism fears.
As American power plants rely more on relatively clean-burning natural gas, and as homeowners continue to switch to gas heat, the demand for the fossil fuel is growing. But the production of North American gas fields, already insufficient to meet demand, is declining, so the industry is increasingly relying on imported natural gas.
The most efficient way to import natural gas is to cool it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which the gas is a liquid that can be shipped via tanker. Liquid natural gas imports - primarily from Trinidad and West Africa, and soon from the Middle East - have more than doubled since last year. Analysts predict that they could increase sevenfold by the end of the decade. Before it is distributed across the country, the natural gas must be offloaded at expensive, high-security tanker terminals, where it is stored and then "revaporized" back to gas form.
Although federal law says that such terminals should be sited in "remote" settings, gas company officials say there are few places where they can tap into pipelines that aren't near people. One terminal has been proposed off California, and another has been approved 40 miles from land in the Gulf of Mexico, but building those facilities is expensive and untried, gas industry officials say.
Community acceptance of liquid natural gas terminals is "critical" to the success of liquefied gas as an energy source, said Robert Ineson, a director with Cambridge Energy Research Associates North American Natural Gas Group. "And we are seeing a mixed response."
Opponents have a long list of concerns about the liquid natural gas terminals, but primarily believe they pose an explosion risk, either from accidents or terrorism. In Harpswell, the proposed project is next to a neighborhood, and residents also worry that lobster fishing grounds will be polluted if the tankers have an accident or are damaged by a proposed underwater pipeline.
There is an added fear: It could harm tourism. Now, only lobster boats and sailing vessels are seen off its rugged and picturesque coast, which attracts thousands of summer visitors.
But supporters say liquid natural gas terminals are one of the safest energy delivery systems going. Liquid natural gas, they say, has been safely transported across the world's oceans for 40 years, and serious accidents rarely occur at terminals. And they point out that more terminals could help lower natural gas prices - especially in New England, which is literally at the end of most natural gas pipelines, making the fuel more expensive here than elsewhere in the country.
It's unlikely that all 36 proposed terminals will be built, so energy companies are rushing to be among the first in line to get a permit. "There is a race on," said Peter Micciche, a gas company representative.
Micciche has told Harpswell residents that a vote needs to come as soon as possible if the company is to build in town. The town's vote was originally scheduled for the middle of this month, and selectmen have postponed it three times to hash out a lease agreement with the company. They say they are getting nearer a decision.